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What Can New Voucher Studies Tell Us About Students With Disabilities?

Education policy wonks have been taking a close look at two evaluations released Monday of voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana. 

The main takeaway: Students who used vouchers in the state to enroll in private schools showed no academic gains in their early years of enrollment, and in some cases lost ground. My colleague Sarah Sparks has dug deeper into the full results for both studies, but I wanted to pull out the portions of the report that speak specifically to special education students.

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The rights of students with disabilities who take vouchers to enroll in public school has been a hot topic—many Democratic lawmakers have asked U.S Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to promise that a federally-funded voucher would maintain student rights.

However, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as currently written, special education students do not have any individual rights to services when they enroll in private school. Federal law is silent about how that works when the student's tuition is paid for through public money, but state-run voucher programs often explicitly require parents to waive IDEA protections as a condition of receiving the voucher. 

Neither of the voucher programs in these studies are meant just for students with disabilities. But enough special education students used the programs that researchers were able to pull out some interesting tidbits.

Academic Performance in Indiana Trailed Peers

The Indiana study tracked a selection of students in grades 3-8 who switched from public to private schools using  Indiana's Choice Scholarship Program, the country's largest voucher program. (The study notes that 34,299 students received a voucher during the 2016-17 school year and 313 private schools participated, representing about three-quarters of the state's private schools.)

Overall, the group of students monitored in the study fell behind in math during the first years in their new schools, compared to similar students in public schools. There were no statistically significant changes in English language arts.

However, special education students in the study performed worse than students in the study as a group; they saw academic achievement losses in English/language-arts as well as in math.

The Indiana voucher program requires that parents of children with disabilities and the private school agree on a "Choice Scholarship Education Plan" that has some similarities to the individualized education program that is required under the IDEA.  However, IEPs are much more comprehensive and are intended to meet the student's legal right to a free, appropriate public education.

Louisiana Students Lose Special Education Classification

In the Louisiana research, researchers found that students who participated in the Louisiana Scholarship Program had no statistically significant gains in math or English/language arts after participating in the program for three years. Louisiana's scholarship schools are not required to provide special education and related services, and parents waive their right to any special education and related services their child may have. 

The study did not track academic achievement by disability, but researchers did suss out other interesting information about the special education students who used vouchers:

  • About 13 percent of the voucher applicant pool was students was disabilities, roughly equal to the population of students with disabilities in Louisiana as a whole;
  • In the second year of participation in the voucher program, students with disabilities were nearly 50 percent more likely than students who did not get a voucher to lose their disability identification;
  • The chance of a voucher student being newly identified as having a disability was slightly lower than the control group rate.

The researchers noted that it's difficult to characterize these findings as good or bad. It's bad if students are losing access to needed services, but it also could be possible that public schools are overidentifying students who don't need special education. 

Interestingly, the Louisiana study also noted that Louisiana has a voucher program that is specifically for students with disabilities. But, with the average voucher of that program at $2,264 and a limitation to parishes (counties) of 190,000 residents or more, only 342 students used the program in the 2015-16 school year.

These findings are not likely to put an end to the debate over vouchers for students with disabilities. Some parents really like them. But the findings do raise hard questions about whether a voucher is the best solution to boosting the academic achievement of students in special education. 


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