Another option

October 03, 2005|By JAY P. GREENE AND GREG FORSTER

A tentative agreement recently was announced in a two-decades-old lawsuit over what services Baltimore schools are required to provide to disabled kids. Special education in Baltimore is so broken that the state took it over. That's how it usually goes in special education: Kids go without services they need while lawsuits drag on - if they even get filed in the first place.

The tentative agreement that was announced Sept. 21 does nothing to change Baltimore's broken special-education system. It provides for make-up services to students who were denied services before, but it does nothing to prevent schools from denying services again in the future.

And denying services is just the outcome that the special education system generally is designed to produce, over and over again, because of the way it's set up. The make-up services are about to be provided, but the fundamental problem with special education in Baltimore's schools is not going away.

Fortunately, there's another option that's been shown to improve outcomes for disabled students, without lawsuits or any extra money. School choice provides an escape hatch to kids stuck in special education who aren't being educated. Families can walk out of schools that don't teach their disabled kids and find schools that will.

Under federal law, public schools are required to provide a "free and appropriate" education to disabled students. The Baltimore lawsuit was filed by families who said the city wasn't serving their children. That was 21 years ago, and only now have the parties agreed on an outline of a compromise solution - with all the details still to be decided.

More shocking, even in 1984 the lawsuit was the system's second failure. The suit says the city failed to provide make-up services that were owed after it had earlier failed to provide services in the first place.

Parents of special-needs children wouldn't be surprised at this lunacy. It's how the whole special-education system is designed to work.

Each student has an Individual Education Plan (IEP) specifying what services that child is entitled to. But if a student is given an IEP that doesn't include adequate services, or if a school fails to provide the services required by a child's IEP, parents have only one recourse: a lawsuit. There are no other options for kids stuck in schools that don't teach them.

It's not hard to see the problems with this system. Many parents don't have the resources to hire a lawyer; they're just stuck. But even for those who have the money, it's a scary prospect to bring a lawsuit against the same school that takes care of your child every day. And school districts are good at winning these lawsuits - they have full-time lawyers who do nothing else but this.

If parents' only recourse is an ineffective one, schools have little incentive to live up to their obligations. Schools get the same size special-education budgets regardless of how much they spend serving a particular child.

Why not cut as many corners as you can if parents are helpless to do anything about it?

This system is better than no system. Before the federal special education law, public schools had no obligation at all to provide services to disabled students. They routinely under-served them or just turned them away entirely.

But we can do better. Florida has provided every disabled child in the state with the option of using a private school voucher worth the entire amount spent on that child in public school. We gathered data on families using the voucher and found that they were much better served in private schools than in public schools.

Parental satisfaction went up from 33 percent in public schools to 93 percent in voucher schools. Only 30 percent of voucher participants said their public schools had provided all the services promised by their children's IEPs, while 86 percent said their voucher schools provided all the services they promised to provide.

Interest groups that want to keep kids trapped in public schools like to claim that disabled students using a voucher "lose their rights." It's true that they no longer have the right to sue their schools. But Baltimore's 21-years-and-running odyssey of legal runarounds shows how much that right is worth in practice.

Much more valuable than the right to sue your school is the right to leave your school and find a better one. Only a lawyer would equate the right to sue with the right to a good outcome. Florida's model is being copied elsewhere. Utah is starting a very similar program this year, and other states continue to consider adopting the idea.

Baltimore's kids, trapped in a system so failed that it's in state receivership, deserve the same choice.

Jay P. Greene is head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation. They are authors of Education Myths.

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