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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

McIlheran Watch: Special Education, School Choice, and Money Money Money

We could play this as "Simple Answers to Simple Questions" . . .

Question: Are we discouraging special-ed kids from attending successful schools?
Answer: Yes.


. . . and leave it at that. But you know me; I can't just walk away from this kind of question with one word. (See Mike Mathias for something akin to a one-word, but good, answer. I think his word is more like duh.)

The long story is that my BFF, the Journal Sentinel's Patrick McIlheran, stayed up late Saturday night to write a column-length rebuttal (linked in the question above) to an op-ed by Barbara Miner that ran in Sunday's paper. Miner wrote,
Within our schools, one issue of growing importance--but that gets insufficient attention--is the mishandling of special education in Milwaukee. This most certainly is not to say that special education students are in any way to blame for problems in our schools, nor to imply that special ed students can all be lumped into one category.

But here's the reality. Some schools, in particular traditional public schools, are home to growing numbers of students with challenging educational needs, especially behavior problems. Other schools, often the ones praised for their academic accomplishments, find ways to have fewer difficult-to-teach students.

Which, of course, raises the question: Do some schools succeed in part because we allow other schools to fail? Are we increasingly treating special ed students as second-class citizens, quietly but effectively discouraged from attending the most successful schools?
Hence the simple question, and the simple answer. Miner's got data to back up her answer of yes, including the fact that Milwaukee's private schools, which includes schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Progam that get our tax dollars in the form of vouchers, have a special education enrollment of less than 2%. At most MPS high schools, including the one where I teach, the number is more than ten times that. Some MPS schools--Miner makes explicit the unwritten rule about King and Riverside--have lower numbers, of course (and, I would argue, there's an unwritten corollary to that rule about the kind of special education students those schools enroll), and those are traditionally the best-performing schools in MPS.

In fact, my high school failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress on its No Child Left Behind testing for several years running exclusively becuase of our speical education population, and primarily then only because not enough of them took the tests, not because of their scores. That track record of failure has led directly to my school's planned closure at the end of this year. Is the rest of our performance all shiny and golden? No, but, outside of our special education population, the general trend at my school has been progress, not just in test scores but also in graduation rates, grade-point average, and truancy rates. But stage five of NCLB is closure or reconstitution, and, well, here we are at the end of that gangplank.

By now, those of you who read this space regularly have figured out what constitutes McIlheran's beef with Miner: He is upset that she's maligning the voucher program:
Recall that choice schools cannot legally turn away a child with a disability and that choice schools must make reasonable accomodations to serve the child.

What they aren’t obligated to offer are the particularly expensive measures that some special-education children need--specialized teachers, for instance. This grates on some school choice critics: Such measures can be very costly, and people who aren’t inclined to like private schools would feel it’s only fair that they bear the expense just as government-run schools do.

Keep in mind, however, that choice schools don’t get a dime over their usual grant for doing this. [. . .] It seems likely that choice schools would take more special-ed students if they got at least some extra money to cover the costs the way government-run schools do.
That's a reasonable point; a voucher school doesn't get the boost in funds that public schools do to serve special education students, and voucher schools that do teach special education kids often have to bridge that gap in other ways. But those schools do not take the most expensive or most challenging cases (accepting the students but saying "we can't afford those accomodations" is the same as rejecting the students), cases that in the public schools cost two, three, up to ten times the average per-student spending to accomodate as required by federal law.

That federal law, by the way, is massively underfunded, to the tune of billions of dollars annually; IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilties Education Act) lays out mandates for public schools and then provides less than a quarter of the money it takes to make those same accomodations. The remainder comes from the state.

McIlheran cites a Florida program that does provide extra cash for private schools to teach special education students, and quotes from the glowing reviews on the program's own website. None of the numbers he cites actually provide any performance data; Florida's public schools are not judged (under NCLB) on whether parents are happy with the schools or on class size, but rather on test scores. (Leave aside the discussion of whether that should be the case; just know that it is.) Florida's private schools, on the other hand, seem to get graded on feel-good measures.

But this talk of paying private schools more for special education students seems to undermine one of the most common arguments in favor of the voucher program, that they do more for less money. If (and this is how Mike Plaisted got it down to one word--duh) you admit that teaching hard-to-teach students well costs more money, then you start to understand what the fuss is about when people like me and Barbara Miner complain about a push to expand voucher schools. As more and more of the easy-to-teach students get sucked into the vortex that is the MPCP, the Milwaukee Public Schools get left with a greater percentage of those whose educations are just plain hard--and expensive. There is certainly an effect from that on teacher morale and building climate (not to mention our NCLB status!), but let's just look at some concrete numbers.

My high school was audited a couple of years back (Audit 2005-003, if you care to dig into it), and as a part of that process, the auditors came up with a figure for what my school spent to educate "regular" students, that is, students not receiving special services. That figure was $6,663 per pupil for the 2003-2004 school year. By contrast, those "do more with less" voucher schools could have received, in that same school year, $5,882, a difference of less than $800 per student. While not nothing, the difference between what it cost a public high school and a voucher school to educate the same kind of student that year was relatively insignificant.

However, our special education students that year cost us almost exactly double, at $13,242 per student, and it is that spending that put my school's overall per-pupil cost at a much higher $8,195. When you compare that figure to the voucher schools' $5,882, the difference seems staggering and does appear to support the claim that voucher schools do more with less. But it masks the reality that MPS's special education population creates, a reality that voucher schools can (and for most, do) happily ignore.

McIlheran's solution to the problem of too few special ed kids in the voucher schools--paying more for special ed kids and requiring that they be serviced appropriately--is a solution that is antithetical to the voucher proponents' notions of cheaper education and independence from state requirements, and so seems unlikely ever to be implemented here. But the fact that he's even mentioning it is good; it means that somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind he recognizes that the voucher schools are getting off easy. Not just because they don't have to teach special education students if they don't want to, but because they're not judged on the performance of those kids the way public schools are, and because the kinds of students voucher schools teach help make the numbers look rosier for them than for the public schools.

It's no wonder he gets defensive.

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