Article Published in the Providence (RI) Journal
Vouchers are the education establishment’s worst nightmare. But for parents not knowing where to turn for help for their special-needs children, they can be a dream come true. And for children who’ve been inappropriately labeled, perhaps even put on psychiatric drugs like Ritalin, and shunted to a special program with no exit in sight, vouchers may offer a ladder out of the abyss.
The profound change behind such hope is the McKay Scholarship, which has become perhaps the hottest new idea in education policy-making since Florida pioneered it in 2000. This is a voucher, a government-backed coupon that consumers can redeem to purchase essential services.
What Florida said to parents of 350,000 students who have been identified as disabled is that if you are dissatisfied with your assigned public school for any reason, you can take a McKay voucher equal to the cost of keeping your child in the public school or the cost of private-school tuition – whichever is less – and use it to send your child to whatever school (private, public, parochial) you deem best for your child.
Thousands are snapping up McKays and Florida papers are full of testimonials about positive turn-arounds for children now receiving individualized attention (and not just on paper) in their new schools. But national policy-makers, particularly those focused on reauthorizing the massive Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), are looking at another benefit the McKays figure to have.
They give public-school officialdom a clear incentive not to over-label students because by so doing they would raise the likelihood of losing with students and with them their share of public appropriations.
Dr. Jay Greene, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, has pointed out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, schools have not been inundated with more and more children with learning problems over the past few years.
Traditional categories of special education – mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, deafness, blindness, and autism – actually declined from 6.5 percent to 5.8 percent of the overall student population between 1976 and 1999. However, one category – “specific learning disability” – has more than tripled during this period – from 1.8 percent of 6 percent of the student population. This is a category in which diagnosis is relatively subjective and treatment relatively inexpensive, and so a “propensity to label” could be a factor.
Writing in the Fordham Foundation’s “Education Gadfly,” Dr. Greene noted that “the most powerful reform (of IDEA) would ‘voucherize’ all students who receive a special-education diagnosis,” as with the McKay Program. “Making all special education students eligible for vouchers not only expands the options available to them and their families, it also provides a disincentive to public schools to over-diagnose students, since public schools will not want to lose these students to private schools.”
A state-level appeals process could guard against any swing of the pendulum to under-diagnosing special needs, Dr. Greene added.
Groundbreaking research by pediatric psychologist Gretchen LeFever of the Eastern Virginia Medical School has pinpointed explosive increases in the diagnosing of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and medication of ADHD children with potent psychiatric drugs like Ritalin over the past decade. While official estimates had placed ADHD patients at 3 to 5 percent of U.S. children, Dr. LeFever and her colleagues looked more closely and found that 17 percent of elementary and middle school children in southeastern Virginia has ADHS diagnoses and 14 percent had been placed on psychiatric drugs.
Furthermore, she found that 28 percent of students medicated for ADHD were taking two different types of psychiatric drugs simultaneously and 8 percent were on three different types of such drugs. “The most common combination,” she noted at a recent Capitol Hill conference, “involved a psychostimulant such as Ritalin and an antidepressant such as Prozac. None of these drug combinations have been tested for their safety, efficacy, or effectiveness.”
Dr. LeFever has calculated that ADHD probably is over-diagnosed and overtreated in 36 of the 50 states.
While vouchers might make school officials more cautious about labeling children, a study of 22 nations by Dr. Lewis M. Andrews of the Yankee Institute indicates that special-needs children have thrived in counties that have voucherized education aid. For instance, Denmark, which has subsidized parental choice since 1899, is considered a special-education model for the world.
In about a month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in a Cleveland case on the constitutionality of vouchers when families use them to patronize religious schools. A lot of hope for sane education policy will be riding on that judgment.
—Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.
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