Commentary

School Choice for Special Ed

By Marie Gryphon and David F. Salisbury
This article appeared on FOXNews.com on July 10, 2002.

Last week, the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education released recommendations for the nation’s troubled special education system. Proposing that states be allowed to adopt school choice programs for disabled students — coupled with extensive continued regulation of both public and private schools — the commission got it half right. A Cato Institute policy analysis released right after the commission’s report shows that real reform requires massive regulatory relief — in addition to parental choice.

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) governs the development of educational programs for more than 5 million disabled children. Instead of empowering parents, the law creates a power struggle between parents and the education establishment. When disagreements occur, parents and school officials must sort out their differences through a complex series of dispute resolution procedures, often involving attorneys and lawsuits.

This “dispute resolution model” creates needless conflicts between parents and educators. Because benefits under IDEA are determined on a case-by-case basis, parents can walk away with either few special benefits or many, based less on their child’s needs than on how aggressively they navigate the act’s procedures.

School districts, by contrast, typically receive a fixed sum of money for each child, regardless of how much they spend. As a result, schools are driven by budgetary constraints to offer little to parents who do not make trouble. Parents know this, and are indignant that the system forces them to combat their children’s school each year in a zero-sum struggle for benefits denied to the less wary. “I have to be a steamroller in my child’s life to get her what she needs,” one parent said.

Accordingly, IDEA’s due process procedures reward posturing and litigation rather than collaboration, and education suffers as a result. Special educators are spending a quarter to a third of their time completing forms, attending meetings, and performing other bureaucratic chores required by law or by their school’s defensive legal strategy. This regulatory burden is driving them to leave the profession — federal surveys show that special educators quit due to “too much paperwork” and “too many meetings.” Both are the result of IDEA’s dispute resolution model.

This artificial battle between parents and schools needs to end in a decisive victory for parents in the form of portable benefits. If parents cannot work effectively with a particular school, they must be able to take their child, and their child’s education dollars, elsewhere.

The president’s commission is right to support state implementation of school choice. However, the commission’s reform plan does not free parents and educators from acrimonious struggles over resources, and would do little to reduce the regulatory burden that has so overwhelmed school districts and teachers.

The commission takes as its model Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for disabled children. Under that program, if parents of a special needs child with an individualized program in a public school are dissatisfied with the child’s progress, they may take their child elsewhere after a year.

Unfortunately, Florida parents must still fight through IDEA’s procedures to determine their child’s benefit in the first place. The commission would require the same. More dangerously, the commission would subject private schools to a heavy regulatory burden. Federal regulation of private schools is not only unnecessary, it would be actively harmful. It runs afoul of common sense to suggest that parents can be trusted to choose a school for their disabled child, but cannot be trusted to evaluate that school. Parents, not bureaucrats, are best positioned to ensure that a child’s educational needs are met. Private schools are attractive to parents for the very reason that they offer something different than what the public schools provide. Creating homogeneity between private and public schools through regulation would deprive private schools of the freedom and creativity that allow them to excel.

Instead of perpetuating IDEA’s failed dispute resolution model and regulatory excess, lawmakers should lift the heavy yolk of federal regulation from the backs of states that make a commitment to parental choice. States should be permitted to tie the size of students’ benefits to the nature of their disabilities, eliminating the primary source of conflict between parents and schools. Then, parents could simply be invited into the public school at the beginning of each term to select their child’s special services, up to the amount of the child’s predetermined benefit - no fighting required. If parents preferred, they could take their children to alternative private schools of choice.

Parents of disabled children need more choices, but they also need to be liberated from the federal regulatory quagmire of IDEA.

This article originally appeared on FoxNews.com on July 10, 2002. A version of this article also appeared in the Wichita Eagle on July 19th as “Special-ed Parents Need Choice and Cooperation.”

Marie Gryphon is a policy analyst and David Salisbury is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. They co-wrote, “Escaping IDEA: Freeing Parents, Teachers and Students Through Deregulation and Choice,” released on July 10.