Briefing Paper No. 81

Lessons from Florida: School Choice Gives Increased Opportunities to Children with Special Needs

By David F. Salisbury
March 20, 2003

Executive Summary

In 2000, Florida instituted an innovative school choice program for children with disabilities. During the 2000-01 school year, the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities provided scholarships to more than 1,000 students who chose to attend private schools rather than remain in their neighborhood public schools. Currently, more than 8,000 special education students in Florida attend 464 private schools throughout the state.

Critics of school choice often argue that school choice benefits only the best and brightest, leaving behind those children who are most difficult to educate. They also argue that vouchers lead to the establishment of “fly-by-night” schools and drain public schools of revenue. Florida disproves those claims.

Private schools have proven their willingness to accept McKay scholarship students, and the fact that 89 percent of McKay students re-enrolled in their scholarship schools demon-strates that most parents are satisfied with their chosen private school.

Policymakers in other states should look to Florida’s experience to inform their school choice efforts. In addition, Congress should make school choice an integral component of any new legislation reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. IDEA encumbers public schools with complex regulations that waste time and resources that could be better spent helping disabled children learn. Eliminating the regulatory burden created by IDEA for states that offer school choice to parents would encourage states to implement innovative reforms.

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David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.