April 29, 2003

April 29, 2003 | WebMemo on Education

Parental Choice in Education for Special Needs Students

This WebMemo is an update to, and replacement of, Florida McKay Scholarship Program Provides Model for Federal Legislation.


During floor consideration of H.R. 1350, the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress should heed the Administration's recommendation to provide disabled children greater educational options.


Members now have the opportunity to consider an amendment that will permit states to establish new, innovative special education programs. Under the proposal, states could voluntarily use IDEA Part D research and innovation dollars to research and develop new education systems that provide families of disabled children with a greater range of options. Under such a system parents and students could customize an education plan that will best help the student succeed.


In states that already have such a program in place, the proposal allows federal Part B funds to be used along side of their state funds to follow the child to the their selected school.


"If there has ever been an opportunity to make a good, rational, and compassionate argument for money following students, it is in the area of special education, Representative Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said recently. "More than any other, special needs students need customized, personalized service."


The proposal would allow states that wish to participate the opportunity to design innovative programs that empower parents with greater choices in the education of their children. A state could, for example, enable students with disabilities to transfer to other public schools within (intradistrict choice) or outside (interdistrict choice) of their home districts. Another state could allow parents and students direct access to services such as speech or occupational therapy.


Under Florida's McKay Scholarship program, for example, state funding for disabled students is under the control of the parent who may use it at any public, public charter, or private school in the state.


Parents who are dissatisfied with their child's academic progress may transfer their children to another public, public charter or private school of choice. The program's continued growth is evidence of parental satisfaction. [See related testimonials below.]


The McKay Program
Named for then-Florida Senate President John McKay, who has a disabled child, the program was enacted as a pilot project by the Florida legislature in 1999 and was expanded statewide in 2001. To be eligible, a student must be enrolled in a Florida public school and have an Individualized Education Plan. If a student transfers to another public school within the district, transportation is provided. Otherwise, parents must provide transportation.[1]

During the 2002-2003 school year, nearly 9,000 of the 374,834 eligible students used McKay Scholarships, roughly double the number participating in the previous year. Participating students transferred to other public schools within or outside of their home district or to one of 547 private schools. The scholarship is equal to the tuition of the receiving school or the amount the state spends to educate a child with that particular disability. These costs range from $4,500 to $21,000, and the average scholarship is$5,547. The program is revenue neutral.[2]


The Administration Recommends Parents Receive Meaningful Options

In July 2002, a presidential commission recommended expanding educational options for students served under IDEA, stating,"The Commission views parental empowerment as essential to excellence in special education. Increasing parental empowerment coupled with public accountability for results will create better results for children and schools."[3] The commission reasoned that "parental and student choice is an important accountability mechanism and IDEA should include options for parents to choose their child's educational setting."[4]


Secretary Rod Paige recently reiterated the Administration's support for parental choice in the Principles for Reauthorizing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act


IDEA currently empowers parents of children with disabilities to participate in the selection of schools and services for their children and where those services will be provided. … IDEA should expand opportunities to help parents, schools, and teachers choose appropriate services and programs for children with disabilities, including the charter and private schools of their choice. States should then measure and report academic achievement results for all students benefiting from IDEA funds, regardless of what schools they choose to attend.[5]



The Administration should insist that Congress follow the recommendations of the bipartisan Commission on Excellence in Special Education and provide the parents of special-needs children with a variety of educational options. Though many parents are satisfied with the services their child currently receives, those who are frustrated with the quality of service provided in their child's schools or dissatisfied with their child's academic progress should be able to access alternative services, including alternative public schools, charter schools, private schools, and tutoring services.


Parental Support for the McKay Scholarship Program*


When Dylan was at the public school, the teacher was writing full-page letters every day telling me what Dylan could not do. He would come home with a full day's schoolwork, plus homework, because he couldn't read the instructions. Homework became a four-hour ordeal of fighting and tears…. After he failed so many times, and he has no self-esteem and no desire to try, then he's labeled as something else and no one wants to deal with him. [At his new school] he does very well. He has learned a lot of coping mechanisms that he wasn't taught at the public school…. After just eight weeks in the private school he earned his very first, ever, perfect score on a spelling test. The skills and abilities he has attained just amaze me. I always knew he could do it; he just needed the right way to unlock that busy brain of his.

By Susan, whose son Dylan attends a school specializing in dyslexia, using a McKay Scholarship.[6]


Kenya is a very happy child. She likes to smile. But, she is very demanding. She's mentally and physically profoundly handicapped and she can't walk. She can't talk. The public school system has been some help, but not enough. I felt Kenya was not making enough progress in public schools…. When I learned about the McKay Scholarships, I chose one of the schools that fit her needs. The McKay Scholarship gives parents a choice-a choice in their child's future. You have an opportunity to make some decisions about the services your child will receive…. She will receive much more in the private school system: psychological services, speech therapy, and more aggressive physical and occupational therapy.

By Selma, whose daughter Kenya uses a McKay Scholarship to attend a school that specializes in serving children with disabilities.[7]


After countless meetings with the public school district, which left us financially and emotionally drained and with very little hope of obtaining a reasonable education for our son, we chose to utilize the McKay Scholarship program. We are delighted to report that we see our son progressing, happy, accepted and respected for the first time in eight years. We are now working with dedicated professionals who share the same goal that our son reaches his full potential. The days of hearing words like "we don't have to"… are a matter of history. Our private school experience is "what can we do for you?"… We can now rely on the teacher or principal to respond to our concerns directly and swiftly. What a refreshing change!

Alice and Michael, whose son participates in the McKay Scholarship Program.[8]


* The testimonies are abridged for reasons of space. 


[2]See the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, "McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities," at www.miedresearchoffice.org/mckayscholarship.htm, and the Florida Department of Education, "John M. McKay Program for Students with Disabilities," at https://www.opportunityschools.org/Shared/faqs.asp?prgmtype=2, https://www.opportunityschools.org/Info/McKay/default.asp and Lisa Fine, "Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off," Education Week, August 8, 2001.

[3]U.S. Department of Education, "A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Families," Presidential Commission on Excellence in Special Education, July 2002.

[4]Press Release "Paige Principles for Reauthorizing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), February 25, 2003, at www.ed.gov/PressReleases/02-2003/02252003.html.

[5] Press Release "Paige Principles for Reauthorizing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), February 25, 2003, at www.ed.gov/PressReleases/02-2003/02252003.html.

[6]Reprinted, with permission from the American Education Reform Council, from testimony, at www.schoolchoiceinfo.org.


[8] Obtained by e-mail correspondence on March 11, 2003.


About the Author

Krista Kafer Senior Education Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education