Special Needs Scholarships in Wisconsin? The Badger State Would be Wise to Follow Florida’s Lead

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Parental Satisfaction Key for Special Needs Scholarship Program in the Sunshine State

January 24, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Special needs scholarships are back in the spotlight in Wisconsin. While the legislation that would give parents of exceptional students the freedom to find the school that best fits their child regardless of income hasn’t passed, the goal behind this bill is simple. Lawmakers want to give Wisconsin parents a Florida level of satisfaction when it comes to finding the right classroom for their children.

Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program has been the nation’s premiere special needs voucher program since its inception in 1999. Disabled and exceptional students are eligible for between $5,500 and $22,000 per year to attend the school that best accommodates them. That dollar amount, which varies per student based on the severity of their disability, mirrors the funding that a public school would have spent on the same student.

The program has grown every year since it was enacted, topping out at more than 23,000 students this spring. A big part of the reason for that growth has been the level of satisfaction that parents who have participated in the program have experienced in its 14 years of service.

I had the chance to examine that satisfaction first hand when I co-authored a study that surveyed parents about their experiences with the program back in 2009. That report, An Empirical Evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was the first-ever empirical evaluation of a tax-credit scholarship program in America. It showed that parents – even those who had removed their children from McKay Scholarships – overwhelmingly approved of the program and its position as an educational pathway in Florida.

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These parents had seen several benefits that came with the access to a new schools and special education programs. 80 percent of respondents claimed they were “very satisfied” with the academic progress their children were making in their new classrooms, a number significantly higher than the four-percent of parents who could say the same about their previous schools. About two-thirds of these parents took advantage of these scholarships after feeling “very dissatisfied” with the amount of personal attention their children were getting. That number fell to three percent after these parents found new classrooms via the McKay Scholarship.

Even the parents that had decided not to participate in the program in the coming year – a sample size of 128 – unanimously agreed that the special needs scholarships should remain available for other parents in the future. Of those departing families, 81 percent said that dissatisfaction with their new classrooms did not play a role in their decision.

The figure above shows how parents in the McKay Scholarship program responded to various questions about their satisfaction with the program.

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That kind of parental happiness is what any special needs voucher program should aim to achieve. Florida’s McKay Scholarships have become the foundation of special needs school choice thanks to the wide range of options they give parents in order to find the education that fits the best. While the details of any similar program in Wisconsin have yet to be finalized, the outcome is clear.

To best serve parents, Badger State officials should look to Florida.

For more on the special needs scholarship, watch the video below: