If the opponents of school choice could have their way, the national debate over the use of public money to subsidize private schooling would turn on the subject of special education. With research demonstrating the overall success of school voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and with the constitutional issue of public funding of religiously affiliated schools headed for resolution in a seemingly God-tolerant Supreme Court, defenders of the educational status quo have been reduced to fanning fears that government support of greater parental choice would transform public schools into dumping grounds for difficult-to-educate students.

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, repeatedly warns that, with private education more accessible to the poor and middle class, good students will “flee” to independent and parochial schools, leaving behind those kids who are physically and emotionally handicapped, are hyperactive, or have been involved with the juvenile justice system. “[P]rivate schools . . . don’t have to take [the learning-disabled],” agrees Tammy Johnson of the liberal activist group Wisconsin Citizen Action, so public schools would be left “to deal with those children.” Even if private schools were required to take a certain percentage of disabled students, adds Rethinking Schools, an online publication of teachers opposed to school choice, they “tend not to provide needed services for children with special education needs or for children who speak English as a second language.” naacp president Kweisi Mfume predicts that the true cost of private education will always exceed what the government can afford to cover, so “those in the upper- and middle-income brackets will be helped the most . . . as long as their kids don’t have personal, behavioral, or educational challenges that cause the private school to pass them by.”

Given the large number of parents who have come to rely on special education services provided through America’s public schools, this strategy of conjuring a worst-case scenario for learning-disabled students would at first appear a promising one. According to the Seventeenth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, over 5.37 million children — 97 percent of American students diagnosed with “special needs” — currently participate in public school special education programs; their parents, many of whom have become adept at using the legal system to access an estimated $32 billion in annual services, are a potent political force. The vast majority of these parents have come to believe that their own son or daughter benefits most from being educated in the same classes as normal students — a remedial philosophy known as “inclusion” — and would vigorously oppose any policy that threatens to isolate special-needs children in separate schools for the learning-disabled.

The argument that school choice must inevitably create special education ghettos would appear to have been strengthened by the recent adoption of market-based education reforms in New Zealand. In the late 1980s, that country’s Labour government undertook a sweeping reorganization of its highly centralized education system, replacing the Department of Education and its 4,000 employees with a new Ministry of Education staffed by only 400 people and putting each local school under the control of a community board of trustees. At the same time, the government abolished school zoning, allowing children to transfer freely between schools, even to private schools, at state expense.

A recent book on these New Zealand reforms by school choice opponents Edward Fiske and Helen Ladd, When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale, makes much of a flaw in the initial legislation, which permitted the more popular public schools to reject students who would be costly to educate or whose disabilities might drag down the test averages. The authors argue that this “skimming” or “creaming” of the better students — which did happen in some cases — is an inevitable consequence of any school choice program, a conclusion widely publicized in the United States by our teachers unions.

Yet a closer look at how learning-disabled students are actually faring under a variety of school choice programs worldwide suggests that the special education card may not play out exactly as the opponents of market-based education reform are hoping. Take the case of New Zealand itself, which has largely remedied its original legislation with two amendments: a 1999 supplemental voucher program targeted at the country’s indigenous population, the Maori, and a law requiring all schools accepting state funds to adopt a non-discriminatory admissions policy. Under the new Special Education 2000 policy, schools also receive supplemental funding for each learning-disabled child they take in; principals are free to spend the money on what they and the child’s parents determine are the most appropriate services. And if the special-needs child leaves the school for any reason, the supplemental funding follows the child to his or her new placement. As a result of these modifications to the initial law, school choice now enjoys nearly universal public support, says Roger Moltzen, director of special education programs in the Department of Education at New Zealand’s University of Waikato, and “is unlikely to be repealed.”

The Dutch experience

To see more clearly the impact of school choice on the treatment of learning disabilities, it is useful to compare the experience of three northern European countries: the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. Each has adopted school choice as part of its national education policy, but with very different provisions in the area of special education. Consider first the Netherlands, where public funding of parental choice has been national policy since 1917 and where almost two-thirds of Dutch students attend private schools.

Until about 15 years ago, universal school choice for mainstream students coexisted with a separate, complex, and cumbersome arrangement for educating the learning-disabled. The Dutch had actually maintained 14 separate school systems, each geared to a particular learning disability — deafness, physical handiuppercase, mild mental retardation, severe mental retardation, multiple disabilities, and so on — and each mimicking as closely as possible the grade levels of conventional public and private schools.

This separate-but-parallel system did employ private providers; it also tested children regularly to determine whether any might be eligible for transfer to mainstream schools. But by the late 1980s the Dutch began to notice a disturbing increase in the percentage of pupils classified as learning-disabled. (The number of learning-disabled students actually remained constant, but this represented a sharp percentage increase, given the steady decline in the total number of school-age children.) There was widespread concern that the special education bureaucracy was expanding its services at the expense of children with mild-to-moderate learning problems, who were not being adequately integrated into mainstream society. The key to reform, many believed, was to create a financial structure that gave parents of special-needs children the same educational choices as other parents.

Under a “Going to School Together” policy adopted by the Netherlands in 1990, it became the stated intention of the Ministry of Education that “parents of children with disabilities should . . . be able to choose between [any] ordinary or a special school for their child.” Children who required additional services for serious learning disabilities were awarded “a personal budget,” which under Dutch law parents could spend at either a special or a mainstream school. To ensure equality of opportunity for all students, supplemental funding was provided to both public and private schools in economically depressed districts, where the percentage of learning-disabled students tends to be higher.

Today the Dutch educational structure enjoys strong support from all political quarters, but especially from advocates of greater inclusion for the learning-disabled. Already the number of separate special school systems has been reduced from 14 to only four.

The Swedes and the Danes

Compare the evolution of special education services in the Netherlands with Sweden, which in March 1992 adopted a “Freedom of Choice and Independent Schools” bill. It gave parents “the right and opportunity to choose a school and education for one’s children” by granting all independent schools a municipal subsidy equal to 85 percent of the public school per-pupil cost multiplied by that private or parochial school’s enrollment. Independent schools that received this funding were free to emphasize a particular teaching method, such as Montessori, an ethnic affiliation, or even a religious affiliation — but all had to be licensed by the national authority, Skolverket.

Like the Dutch, the Swedes had adopted a universal choice policy, but with one important limitation: The parents of special education students were not effectively granted the same freedom as parents of normal children. This omission was due in large part to Sweden’s long history of pedagogic paternalism, which for decades had lowered testing standards, altered textbooks, and micromanaged both classroom and extracurricular activities — all in an effort to avoid making the learning-disabled feel in any way inferior. (“A handicap,” according to official publications of the Swedish National Agency for Special Needs Education, “is not tied to an individual but is created by the demands, expectations, and attitudes of the environment.”) When the Swedes finally adopted school choice for mainstream children, they were reluctant to risk letting learning-disabled students “flounder” in this new, more competitive educational marketplace.

The result today is that the majority of Sweden’s deaf students are still educated in separate institutions. Other special-needs students, who supposedly have been integrated into the educational mainstream, continue to suffer under a centrally managed system in which support services are negotiated between school principals and municipal finance officers, with parents having little input. In theory, all conventional schools are supposed to have an action plan outlining a program of support for their special-needs students. According to a 1998 study by Sweden’s National Agency for Education (nae), however, only half of the country’s schools maintain any such plans and fewer than 20 percent of affected parents feel they are able to participate.

One interesting consequence of this lingering paternalism is that the percentage of Swedish children classified as needing special education services is high relative to other industrialized countries and continues to grow at a disproportionate rate. Between the school years 1992-93 and 1996-97, according to the nae, the number of students registered in schools for the mentally impaired rose by one-fifth. Furthermore, the severity of disabilities tends to be ranked higher within categories. For example, only 25 percent of Sweden’s mentally retarded are considered mild cases, while 75 percent are labeled “moderate-to-severe.” In the United States, by way of contrast, the proportions are exactly reversed. To what extent this reflects the failure of Sweden’s centralized management of special education — or simply the tendency of a large bureaucracy to expand its client base — is unclear at present, but the failure of Sweden to make school choice truly universal has clearly undermined the government’s stated goal of promoting greater inclusion.

Finally we come to Denmark, where political support for private education dates back to 1899 and where 11 percent of students attend more than 400 private schools with municipal governments covering 80-85 percent of the cost. Compared to Sweden and the Netherlands, the Danish education ministry has the longest history of, in its own words, letting “resources follow the [special-needs] child.” Parents normally have the final say over what school their learning-disabled son or daughter attends, and if an independent school is chosen, the Ministry of Education pays a sum per pupil to the receiving school, with the student’s hometown ultimately reimbursing the ministry. The Ministry of Education provides supplemental resources — such as classroom aids, extra courses, and after-hours tutoring — through special grants on a case-by-case basis.

The startling result is that only 0.7 percent of Denmark’s 80,000 learning-disabled students are confined to specialized institutions — as compared to five times that percentage in the United States. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd), which tracks special education statistics internationally, has praised the Danes for their exceptionally “strong commitment to inclusive education” and for years has held up Denmark’s approach to schooling as a model to the rest of the world.

One obvious conclusion to be drawn from the three-way comparison of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark — as well as from the experience of New Zealand — is that inclusion is not only possible under school choice, but with the right policy adjustments, may succeed to an extent not even imagined by American educators. The critical variable appears to be the willingness of legislators to extend freedom of choice to all parents, including the parents of the learning-disabled. In Australia, a school choice country where supplemental funding to support special education is provided to both private and public schools by the national government — but where individual territories have wide discretion in directing how the money is spent — those regions which provide the most flexibility to parents of the learning-disabled also have the best record of mainstreaming. From 1990 to 1995, the percentage of special-needs students successfully integrated into schools in New South Wales more than doubled, while the number of Schools for Special Purposes (the Australian euphemism for segregated special-needs schools) declined sharply. By contrast, West Australia retained most of its separate schools during that same period.

It is also worth noting that, regardless of the degree to which choice has been offered to parents of the learning-disabled, the subsidy of private education in foreign countries has not turned government schools into the “special education ghettos” American critics have predicted; rather it has led to a general increase in standards for all schools. According to studies by the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education (eadsne), the choice of an independent school in countries subsidizing private education is based far less on academic status than on a school’s denominational affiliation, its political or social leanings, and, in some cases, the school’s mix of instructional languages.

In a recently published review of education in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, eadsne notes that private schools in these countries are “not generally considered elite” and that attending one confers “no added status or advantages.” It is true in the case of the Netherlands that private schools have the legal right to impose admissions criteria, but in practice the vast majority follow an unrestrictive admissions policy. Sweden has seen a large increase in its number of private and religious schools since legalizing choice — an average annual growth of 15 percent — but this is from an extraordinarily low base created by a steeply progressive tax code that, prior to 1992, had made private education prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest families. Australia has a number of elite private boarding schools, which cater to parents of children from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia; but the domestic reality is that nearly half the enrollment in Australia’s non-government schools is from families with a combined income of less than $27,000 (U.S.). In none of the 18 countries that in any way subsidize private or parochial education could the increase in the number of independent schools be described as a “massive flight” of the most capable students from public education.

Upon thoughtful consideration, the failure of school choice policies abroad to harm public education is not surprising. In the United States the concept of public funding of private education has become synonymous with the idea of a voucher system whereby parents receive a tuition coupon from the government for each of their children, which they are free to redeem at a school of their choosing. This equivalence between choice and vouchers in the American mind has allowed opponents of school choice to conjure up fearful scenarios in which wealthier families combine vouchers with their own resources to bid up and buy out limited slots at the most prestigious private schools.

Even if we put aside the appropriate counterargument — namely, that a free education marketplace would create as many good private schools as the public demanded — we have already seen that there are many ways other than vouchers to finance school choice, with as many protections for the poor and disabled as the state is willing to entertain. In Australia, where school choice was actually adopted as a populist reform in 1973 by a liberal-leaning Labor government, subsidies for private education are based on what is called a Social Economic Status (ses) model. Students attending private schools from wealthy towns receive assistance amounting to less than 25 percent of tuition, while students from poorer areas in the western part of the country can be reimbursed up to 97 percent. Technically speaking, school choice refers only to a method for making educators more accountable to parents — by empowering parents to choose their children’s schools — not to any ideological bias involved in selecting among the many options for financing this method.

If there is a cautionary lesson to be learned from the experience of foreign countries, it comes from the United Kingdom, where in 1981 the parliament adopted the Assisted Places Scheme with the aim of providing private school tuition scholarships to 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old children from low-income families. By 1992 there were more than 26,000 voucher students attending almost 300 independent schools throughout England and Wales — and a separate parallel system had been established in Scotland.

Yet in spite of the program’s apparent success, the annual enrollment cap of 5,000 was not raised, nor was there a serious effort to include children in their younger, more formative years. Instead, in 1988, Parliament enacted a more limited form of school choice, very similar to what Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and other Democrats are now advancing in the United States as a “moderate” alternative to a freer education marketplace. Under this “open enrollment” system all students were allowed to transfer between government-run schools on a space-available basis, but no funding could follow a student to private (what the English call “public”) or religious schools, thus inhibiting the ability of education entrepreneurs to offer students real academic options.

The result of Britain’s attempt to limit parental choice to government schools has been to create the very special education ghettos that opponents of school reform say they are against. “Popular schools in wealthy communities have devised many subtle ways to keep out expensive-to-educate students,” observes Philip Garner, research professor in special education at Nottingham Trent University. Children with learning disabilities “are confined to failing schools in poorer districts, such as Liverpool, Tower Hamlets, and Hackney.” In a telling indication of popular dissatisfaction with England’s “moderate” approach to choice, the number of appeals brought before that country’s special education tribunal reached 35 per week in the school year 1995-96. It was not until just before the last election, with polls showing a growing public anger over declining social services, that Parliament finally passed legislation allowing private companies and foundations to take over management of what the tabloids were calling “Britain’s sink schools.”

Inclusion and achievement

So far we have seen that school choice is not only compatible with inclusion but may, under the right circumstances, be the most effective means of implementing it. Yet social inclusion is not a synonym for academic achievement. How, we must also ask, does a more competitive educational marketplace affect the intellectual development of learning-disabled students?

One clue comes from, of all places, the United States, where the same administrators who oppose choice for mainstream and moderately impaired children in their own schools tend overwhelmingly to favor private placements over public institutions for their towns’ most difficult-to-educate students. According to Department of Education statistics, over 2 percent of the nation’s learning-disabled population — 100,700 students — are contracted out by local school boards to independent institutions, many operated by Catholics, Jews, Mennonites, Quakers, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. Ironically, the states that rely most on private providers to teach the severely disabled have been among the staunchest opponents of market-based education reform: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.

American public school administrators are far less inclined to use private providers to teach students within their own walls; yet when they do, the results are instructive. In the school year 1999-2000, the school board of Hawthorne, California, hired Sylvan Learning Systems to offer remedial reading services to its learning-disabled students, while continuing to tutor normal children with regular teachers. According to the Hawthorne district’s own standardized test, the special education students exceeded the gains of the non-special education students by five points for a total Normal Curve Equivalent (nce) gain of nine. (nces are a common standard for measuring student progress in reading.) Special education students who completed a similar program in Compton, California, during the same school year made similar gains.

The overall academic success of special-needs students in school choice countries has led the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education to conclude that the policy mechanisms for providing services to the learning-disabled may be just as important to their intellectual and social development as any teaching technique. In its recently published Seventeen Country Study of the Relationship Between Financing of Special Needs Education and Inclusion, eadsne found that monopolistic public school systems characterized by “direct input funding” — that is, upping the budget for every increase in the number of learning-disabled students — produced the least desirable outcomes. Conversely, school systems characterized by multiple service providers, decentralization, accountability to parents, and an emphasis on teaching over such bureaucratic procedures as diagnosis and categorization “seem to be the most successful” at helping the learning-disabled to grow into happy, productive adults.

Again, it is useful to consider specific countries. In Sweden — where, as we have seen, choice is encouraged only for mainstream students — a telling split has developed in measures of parental satisfaction with the educational system. In 1993, a poll conducted by Sweden’s National Agency of Education concluded that “85 percent of Swedes value their new school choice rights,” a clear indication that parents of mainstream children were pleased with the academic results. On the other hand, studies by the same agency showed that the confidence of parents of learning-disabled children in Sweden’s special education services was eroding at a rapid pace. It is “alarming,” concluded the nae in its 1998 report, Students in Need of Special Support, “that parents of more than 100,000 schoolchildren feel that the school system does not have the means to give their children the support they may need.”

Halfway around the world in New Zealand, where exceptional efforts have been made in recent years to ensure that special-needs students benefit from school choice, experts such as Dr. David Mitchell of the School of Education at the University of Waikato record significant progress in the treatment of learning disabilities. Over the past three years, he notes, New Zealand’s special education system has moved “from being relatively ad hoc, unpredictable, uncoordinated, and nationally inconsistent to being relatively coherent, predictable, integrated, and consistent across the country. It is moving away from . . . seeing the reasons for failure at school as residing in some defect or inadequacy within the student to seeing it as reflecting a mismatch between individual abilities and environmental opportunities.”

In Australia, a 1998 study funded by the national Department of Education, Training, and Youth Affairs found that many intellectually and physically disabled students who received an inclusive education under the nation’s school choice program were “achieving in literacy and [math skills] at the same levels as their peers and, in some cases, much better than their classmates.” Because the overwhelming percentage of non-government schools in that country are religiously affiliated, the internationally respected Schonell Special Education Research Centre at the University of Queensland has begun a previously unthinkable study to determine the extent to which faith improves academic achievement in the learning-impaired.

Current dissatisfactions

All of which suggests that the more American parents of learning-disabled children become knowledgeable about the benefits of school choice around the world, the more the advocates of the status quo may regret ever trying to exploit the issue of special education in the first place. After all, notes Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn, it’s not as if parents of learning-disabled children are anywhere near being satisfied with the services public schools now provide. “America’s special education program has an urgent special need of its own,” he writes. “It is, in many ways, broken.” Jay Matthews, education reporter for the Washington Post, agrees, noting that journalists, himself included, “have done a terrible job telling this story. Special education systems are often too confusing, too bureaucratic and too bound by privacy rules to yield much useful information.” What research is available, he adds, “suggests that the special education system has led to widespread, if well-intentioned, misuse of tax dollars and has failed to help kids.”

To appreciate the unexpected way in which parental dissatisfaction with current services may shape domestic education policy, consider the surprising evolution of the “A+ Plan,” the statewide voucher program adopted by the Florida legislature in 1999. Although initially regarded by some as a muted reform because children were not entitled to a private education unless their public school had failed to meet minimum academic standards in only two of four years, the law did authorize a sweeping pilot program for learning-disabled students in Sarasota County. Under this test project, the only requirement for a special-needs child to transfer to a private school was that his parents express dissatisfaction over his progress at meeting the goals of his individualized instructional plan.

So popular was the pilot program that just one year later, state senator John McKay was able to pass an amendment to the original A+ Plan, allowing the Sarasota County provision to apply to the entire state. According to the new law, known as the McKay Scholarship Program, private schools taking on a special-needs child could recover from the government from $6,000 to $20,000, depending on the severity of the child’s disability. The only caveat was that any school wanting to participate in the program had to accept all learning-disabled applicants. In the school year 2000-01, 105 private schools in 36 of Florida’s 67 districts signed up to enroll more than 900 special education students. Over the current academic year (2001-02), Florida state officials estimate the number of learning-disabled students receiving assistance will quadruple to 4,000, while the number of participating schools will triple to more than 300.

Although researchers have yet to identify the precise reasons the expansion of the McKay Scholarship Program had such easy political sailing, anecdotal evidence suggests strong backing from the largest group of eligible families: those with moderately disabled children who, while continuing to be promoted with their classmates, were nevertheless floundering academically. “My child needed a choice, an alternative. [She] was lost in middle school,” says the mother of a scholarship recipient from the western part of the state. “She was held back early on, and the district did not want to keep holding her back, so even though she was not learning, she was moved along.” Black clergy from Florida’s cities, where the percentage of fourth-graders unable to read can soar as high as 60 percent, were also outspoken advocates of the McKay Scholarship Program.

Interestingly, a similar alliance of middle-class parents and minority clergy seems to have coalesced behind President Bush’s recently enacted “No Child Left Behind” education bill. While stripped of its initial tuition voucher proposal for mainstream schools, the legislation nevertheless retained its “supplemental services” provision, which makes parents at over 3,000 poorly performing schools nationwide eligible for federal funding of remedial tutoring at an independent school or even a private company of their choice. Essentially a remedial education voucher program, it lets parents decide how and where the funds will be used.

While the prospect of advocates for the learning-disabled leading the charge for school choice here in the United States will doubtless come as a shock to the teachers unions and their political allies, it is hardly without precedent. Much of the shift toward the privatization of public education in Europe and elsewhere has come from political activism on behalf of special-needs students.

Indeed, it can be argued that opponents of school choice and parents of the learning-disabled were never very likely to stick together in the first place. Unlike mainstream students, most of whom can survive one bad year of mediocre instruction, a special-needs child can be permanently damaged by a single incompetent teacher, whose tenured position is protected by the current public school monopoly. In the end, the parents of learning-disabled students have the same goal as all market-oriented school reformers: to make every educator accountable to the highest possible standards.

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