Thomas Jefferson, a strong proponent of public education in Virginia, believed that every child should “be in reach of a central school”. More than 200 years later, Mr. Jefferson’s vision has been realized, but the nearest public school is not always the best for every child. This is especially true for children with physical or mental disabilities. Virginia parents tell sad stories of inadequate services at public schools, where students can fail despite having their own individualized educational programs. Dissatisfied parents’ current only recourse, besides paying for private tuition on top of their property and other taxes, is a due-process hearing or lawsuit, which is time-consuming stressful, and costly for all involved.
Several states have begun to address these challenges by offerring scholarships to special-education students. One of the most successful of these programs is Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. Recipients receive scholarships to attend the public or private schools of their choice; scholarship amounts are equivalent to what the tax-payers would have spent on their education in their local public schools. During the 2006-07 school year, it provided scholarships to 18,273 special-needs students and had become the largest educational-choice program in the United States.
For three consecutive years, State Senator Walter Stosch has sponsored legislation to create a similar program in Virginia, which would provide a grant of up to $10,000 annually for any special-education student to use at a non-sectarian Virginia school of his family’s choice.
“The issue is whether or not we want to find an alternative for these parents who are trapped into an environment where it’s just not working for them,” Sen. Stosch told the Education and Health Committee on February 2, 2006.
A program like Sen. Stosch’s could give Virginia’s disabled students and their families more choice to seek out the best education for their individual situations, for example by selecting a school with a small staff who specialize in certain disabilities, such as autism or emotional disturbance. At the same time, such a scholarship program could actually help school districts save tax dollars. According to a study by Susan Aud, if Virginia provided tuition assistance grants of $5,000 apiece to parents of students with special needs, “the average school division would gain a net fiscal benefit of $5,214 from revenue sources that do not vary with enrollment (leaving these funds in school divisions even after students depart), and an additional net fiscal benefit of $6,729 because their reduction in special education costs would greatly exceed their reduction in per-student funding.” That adds up to a total of $11,943 in financial gain to the school district for each student in the first year of participation.
Special-education spending varies widely across Virginia school districts. However, applying Dr. Aud’s statewide average of $11,943, and assuming a 4 percent participation rate (based on Florida’s experience with McKay scholarships), we can paint an impression of how much TAGs might save individual districts.
Richmond City, Norfolk, and Newport News each had approximately 5,000 special education students in 2005. If 200 of these students, or 4 percent, left their districts, the district would gain a total of more than $2,000,000 in the year the students departed, based on Dr. Aud’s figure of $11,943 each. A district the size of Roanoke County with more than 2,000 disabled students, could gain more than $1,000,000. A smaller district like Fredericksburg, with around 400 special-education students, could gain nearly $200,000.
As with any needed service, freedom of choice is vital to quality education. This is especially true for students whose individual needs require customized instruction. Unlike public schools, which have limited funding to provide special services, private schools have incentives to satisfy families. An impressive 93 percent of parents whose children participate in Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program report being either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their children’s private schools, as opposed to a paltry 33 percent of parents with special-education children in Florida’s public schools. Allowing Virginia families to enjoy the same opportunities as their Florida counterparts to use at least part of the funds that would be spent on their children in public schools on education in the setting of their choice would better meet the needs of these students, save taxpayers’ money, and further the spirit of Mr. Jefferson’s vision.
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