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Special Education Vouchers Prevent Mislabeling, Study Says


Earlier this week, I asked what single thing people would change about the special education system to make it function better. Marcus A. Winters and Jay P. Greene, two fellows at the Manhattan Institute, suggest that one solution could be vouchers.

The authors have written several papers in support of special education vouchers, and their latest report, released Tuesday, says the voucher program in Florida, called McKay Scholarships, has worked to slow down mislabeling of students as being in need of special education.

We contend that the reduction in SLD classification observed in the Florida schools after the introduction of a voucher program results from denying public schools what they understand to be the economic benefit of receiving a supplemental payment from the state for every additional child designated as suffering from an SLD. Thus, special-education vouchers appear to constrain costly growth in special-education enrollments.

That's an interesting contention. My first thought is that there also seem to be disincentives to labeling a child, because you can't just call a student "learning disabled" and wait for the money to roll in. There are certain responsibilities on the part of the school district that must be met for every child that is designated as being in need of special education services. Winters and Green address that issue:

Whether the revenue from state and federal subsidies for special education exceeds costs and offers schools a sufficient financial incentive to move students into special education who would not have been moved there otherwise is not something that can be observed directly.

But we can infer the influence of those incentives from schools’ behavior. Since we know from previous research that schools increase special-education enrollments in response to financial incentives, we have reason to believe that the additional revenue that comes from identifying certain students as disabled exceeds the additional costs and, by implication, that the schools know that it does.

I haven't done the research of these two authors, and my anecdotes as a reporter do not equal "data." It's my sense, however, that both parents and schools play a role in increasing special education designations. For parents in some communities, perhaps that designation comes with some extra help that they believe their child needs.

In other communities, schools could possibly be labeling children for the perceived financial benefit, but they also could be using faulty diagnostic tools. I wonder how widespread the use of response to intervention is in Florida, and if that intervention model could also be exerting some downward pressure on the number of students labeled as learning disabled. Supporters of RTI say that it is supposed to do just that.

The federal government, in the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has also made the overidentification of minority students for special education an issue that districts must address and try to prevent. Could that also be a factor here?

There's also a possibility that because of the voucher option, some children are not being diagnosed a having a learning disability who legitimately have one. The authors note this possibility in their conclusion:

One could interpret the result that we and previous research found in one of two ways: under McKay, there is less overclassification; or, under McKay, schools respond to the risk of losing funding by failing to diagnose as disabled some students who are in fact disabled. Although we can only speculate at this point, the tremendous growth in special education over the last few decades, along with the fact that much of this growth has been confined to the mildest form of learning disability—which happens to be the one in which subjective diagnostic judgments play the largest role—leads us to believe that the former interpretation is more likely.

What do you think? Have the authors put forward a convincing case?


Whoa, check the partisan motives of your sources!


The Manhattan Institute has been "studying" the Florida voucher program as a test case for general private school vouchers for a while now. They don't care about special ed; they're interested in promoting the privatization of k-12 education nationwide. Their "studies" are white papers at best, pure propaganda at worst.

The idea that a voucher program might prevent "over" identification of SLD is spurious causal inference, given the most charitable of interpretations. The notion that there are true financial incentives for overidentification of SLD remains to be proven in my view, but that's another debate. As for this "study," I'd be more than skeptical of anything the Manhattan Institute has to say about vouchers, sped or otherwise.

I work in a northern California high school district where last year between 15 and 16% of our students were classified Special Ed. At least in California, to the best of my knowledge, Special Education services cost more than we receive for the kids.

Special Ed services can put a strain on a very small district's finance (particularly if the student needs intensive and costly support).

There is a financial cost for schools to identify kids as Special Ed. The schools I'm familiar with are not going out of their way to classify kids as Special Ed. In fact, one thing we often see is kids who are classified Special Ed in their last year (or often the last semester) of eighth grade. This way their K-8 school doesn't have to provide official Special Education services.

Different states have different rules and different realities. I have no idea about the situation in Florida but it definitely is not the case here.

I write from the Florida special needs voucher trenches - I am both an attorney for parents of disabled public school students and a fierce proponent of the McKay Scholarship. I don't doubt the results of Greene and Winters' study which addresses those students with "marginal" disabilities. But special needs vouchers may provide an even greater benefit (to both schools and parents) for moderately disabled students.
In my experience, the most severely disabled get expensive special education services, regardless of what the quality of those services may be. But there are few private schools (at least in South Florida) which can meet the needs of those students at a reasonable cost - even if a parent gets the maximum allowable McKay Scholarship to private school – about $20,000!

Because of the way Florida special education funding is structured there is no added incentive for giving special ed. services to the moderately disabled - the schools do not get more money for labeling or serving them than they get for the mild or marginally disabled. Yet, the moderately disabled are more difficult and expensive to educate. Thus, I have found that Florida parents of the moderately disabled tend to be less satisfied with the public schools which generally are not effectively educating them.

If a parent of a moderately disabled student leaves public school with a McKay voucher worth let's say $10,000/year, that money could put a good dent in a private school tuition which may do a better job educating that child. At the same time, the school district still retains the federal special ed. funds for that child but is no longer responsible for the touch job of educating him or her.

The bottom line is that while special needs vouchers may not decrease the financial incentive to label students who are moderately disabled, they may result in a win-win situation for both schools and parents. And the largest growth in the use of special needs vouchers may come from those students given Response to Intervention.

Hi Mamacate! You're absolutely right, both of these authors are strong proponents of vouchers. That doesn't meant that they are necessarily wrong in their conclusions, though.

(Just for another POV, here's a story I wrote that offers a criticism of Ohio's voucher program from the perspective of a more left-leaning group, Policy Matters Ohio:


I'm not entirely sure that Winters and Greene's paper definitively makes the case that students are being "mislabeled" for financial reasons, and that vouchers are the solution. To say that these students have been mislabled requires much more analysis. But a lot of people like special education vouchers, so it's worth talking about, at least.

Allison, thanks so much for adding your perspective! Could you expand a little bit on your last point, that the largest growth in special needs vouchers may come from students given RTI?

As a retired school psychologist who assessed 100 children per year, I can say that in San Francisco the problem of student identification had nothing to do with school finance and vouchers. The problem is well documented worldwide that our children are being poisoned by environmental toxings that compromise their central nervous system leaving them unready to learn. The incidence of learning disabilities at 12 - 20% presently in the US is comprobable to that of rual India.

The schools have to educate the children that come to them, and some children arrive at Kindergarten with their problem already in evidence. Multiple other factors in the child's family and social environment also contribute to these problem. It is time to begin to look at the source of the problem, and the schools can best tell the story of children who arrive at school unable to learn.

Learning disabilities are no longer the mystery that they once were, however, if Winters and Green are looking at finance it is likely they will draw a conclusion based upon changing finances. I think it is time to look at the children we talk about and begin to determine what is going on with them. The research is documented on the internet, and more is written everyday about ecological concerns that are causing learning disabilities. It is time the schools stood up and said to the other powers that be, "This is what our population of children look like, lets do something about it."

More and more children are being labeled mild SLD because more children are suffering from emotion, physical, psychological and ecological trauma in their environment. It has increased consistently since WWII.

Let's look at the real cause. Creative school financing is not the answer, we need to take a look at what we are doing with children and ask whether we are rearing children ready to learn.


Your comments disturb me because of the subjectivity involved in much of SLD diagnosis. Pete Wright points to research showing that most school psychologists agree that school factors (ie intstruction) can be a contributing factor to the symptoms of "SLD." And yet, when asked how many have ever actually identified on an MFE that school factors are the root of a child's problem, the number is zero.

In my experience, this is like a doc saying out loud that another doc screwed up the diagnosis or treatment. It just doesn't happen. Psychs dutifully ask the teacher what s/he has been doing to respond to Johnnie's/Janies lack of progress--but the general assumption is that the teacher knows what they are doing and whatever they did is an indication that appropriate instruction was "available."

I am a bit skeptical of the "well documented world wide" claim that toxins of various kinds are at the root of learning disabilities. Of course, you have provided yourself cover by throwing in the usual vague suppositions that even when there is nothing organically wrong, the conditions at home or in the neighborhood are so traumatic that the are emotionally disabled and cannot learn.

I agree with you that if this is the case--that is, that the documentation substantiates this either across the population spectrum or in an individual school--professionals have an obligation to stand up and demand a change in practice. Not reduced outcome expectations, mind you, but actual changes in classroom practice. In some ways, it is easier to respond when 20% of your kids are exhibit difficulties than when it's only one or two. Broad numbers require broad solutions and across the board changes.

But this will require a vast climate change in the way in which we see learning for the population which we now consider to be "SLD." Labelling is not an end. The label of SLD tells us next to nothing about how to proceed if the goal is increased learning. But if the goal is to move the kid, change the expectations, or possibly to attract some bucks, the label is a pretty decent vehicle.

In Florida, response to intervention may be a reason for less identification of special education students rather than the existence of vouchers.

By training and research I speak to my statements about the environmental factors that impact the development of the central nervous system leaving the child with a lack of neural connections needed for learning. My point is that the label is not a sufficient method of looking at the problem. I would suggest that parents be encouraged to protect their children from poor nutrition, emotional trauma, lack of sleep, and obesity, all of which are well document scientifically to have a negative impact upon the developing nervous system. This is a social problem, and the schools are not responsible for addressing and preventing the cause. The schools have to teach the child that comes to them, and in some cases are very successful. My position is that the schools could do a better job of teaching children if they arrived at school ready to learn. Children who arrive at school with learning disabilities already in evidence, were not reared in an environment with good nutrition, loving involved parents, plenty of exercise, and a good sleep regimine.
I would suggest putting as much emphasis upon raising healthy children as we do complaining about the schools not teaching them. Demand that the Congress fund IDEA at a level sufficient to provide the kind of therapeutic learning environment needed to educate SLD children and the schools may do a better job. As a teacher I purchased special supplies out of my own pocket, and every teacher who really cares spends part of her paycheck to purchase supplies for her classroom. Public schools do not have the latitude or the resources to compete with the special programs in private schools.

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