By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst
In Madison, the battle has waged over whether or not special needs students should be able to receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice if they are unhappy with their current classroom. Students in public schools that have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) would be eligible to receive up to $13,500 to attend the institution that they believe would fit them best, be it public, private, or charter school. This issue has split Wisconsin’s legislature in a year where school choice has made major gains within the state.
Many legislators are bringing up Florida’s McKay Scholarships as an example – both good and bad – to drive their arguments. Those in favor of the program cite its scope (it’s the largest special needs school choice program in the country) and success stories for students. Those opposed have pointed to the allegations of fraud that were pointed out in a June 2011 story by the Miami New Times.
However, there’s one key element that is missing in this debate. Both sides seem to be forgetting the most important aspect of these scholarships – the families. Fortunately, that’s an angle I happen to have some insight on.
Back in August of 2009, I co-authored a study (along with Dr. Greg Forster) that asked parents who had participated in the McKay Scholarship program about how they felt about the voucher plan. Were they happy with their experience? Did they find the educational environment that they were looking for? Were they satisfied with their teachers? What was the difference between their public school experience and their private school experience?
Using a random sample of participants, we surveyed more than 800 families in Florida to gauge their opinions on the scholarship program. These families all had students who had been educated in regular public schools at one point and then had received a McKay Scholarship for the 2008-2009 school year. An independent third-party contractor, Marketing Informatics, conducted the surveys via telephone.
What these parents had to say exemplified the positive effects of special needs scholarships. They were happier with their child’s education under the scholarships across the board. They reported seeing greater achievement for their children, stronger and more attentive teachers in the new classrooms, a better environment for students, and greater satisfaction as a whole when it came to their child’s education.
What do these results tell us? In simple terms, families that participated in the McKay Scholarship Program were unhappy with the education they were getting in their neighborhood public school. This funding gave parents more freedom and the ability to find the school that fit them better – and many did just that. The difference between the levels of satisfaction between the two groups is significant. Families were considerably happier with the level of education they were receiving thanks to scholarship funds compared to their background in regular public schools.
That’s who would benefit from Wisconsin’s special needs scholarships. Students who are getting the most out of their local public schools can stay where they are. Students that need a different environment to thrive will have greater opportunities than ever before. This is about creating options for the families that need them the most – and in Florida, that’s led to high levels of satisfaction for parents of exceptional children.
Furthermore, 128 of the parents surveyed told data collectors that they would not be participating in the program in the following year. 81 percent stated that dissatisfaction with the scholarships did not play a role in this decision. 100 percent of these parents supported continuing the program for others even though they would not be using it themselves.
Legislators have taken Wisconsin’s special needs scholarship bill to task in recent weeks, but their focus has often been diverted from the people that this program would help the most. These scholarships would share many of the same tenets of Florida’s flagship program – tenets that have proven to satisfy parents and help pair students with the environment that fits them best.
For the entire Friedman Foundation study referenced in this article, follow this link.