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

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In 2000, Florida instituted an innovativeschool choice program for children with disabilities.During the 2000-01 school year, theMcKay Scholarship Program for Studentswith Disabilities provided scholarships tomore than 1,000 students who chose toattend private schools rather than remain intheir neighborhood public schools. Currently,more than 8,000 special education students inFlorida attend 464 private schools throughoutthe state.

Critics of school choice often argue thatschool choice benefits only the best andbrightest, leaving behind those children whoare most difficult to educate. They also arguethat vouchers lead to the establishment of"fly-by-night" schools and drain publicschools of revenue. Florida disproves thoseclaims.

Private schools have proven their willingnessto accept McKay scholarship students, and thefact that 89 percent of McKay students re-enrolledin their scholarship schools demon-stratesthat most parents are satisfied with theirchosen private school.

Policymakers in other states should look toFlorida's experience to inform their schoolchoice efforts. In addition, Congress shouldmake school choice an integral component ofany new legislation reauthorizing the Individualswith Disabilities in Education Act. IDEAencumbers public schools with complex regulationsthat waste time and resources thatcould be better spent helping disabled childrenlearn. Eliminating the regulatory burdencreated by IDEA for states that offer schoolchoice to parents would encourage states toimplement innovative reforms.

David F. Salisbury

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