School Choice for Special Ed
by Marie Gryphon and David Salisbury,
CATO Institute, July 16, 2002
Marie Gryphon is
a policy analyst and
is director of the Cato Institute's
Educational Freedom. They co-wrote, "Escaping
IDEA: Freeing Parents, Teachers and Students Through Deregulation and
Choice," released on July 10.
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
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