Vouchers for Special Ed

The Republican victory in the midterm elections for Congress has the party pulling old bills off the shelf for a fresh look. One of them, introduced by New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, would allow the nation's 6.5 million special-education students to attend private schools with taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Last summer's Supreme Court decision on school vouchers in general helps pave the way for such a targeted experiment. It's not much of a leap from the current practice in many states to let public money be spent on private education of special-ed kids in unusual cases - when public schools can't (or won't) provide such services. Florida already allows parents to send kids with disabilities to the private school of their choice. Studies show this has put pressure on public schools to improve their services.

Special-ed vouchers might help parents of these children through the bureaucratic and legal maze they usually face. And such private programs would likely be more cost-effective, lowering the heavy burden for taxpayers in supporting public special-ed.

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A program to let special-ed children go to private schools would need to include mainstreaming of the less- needy students in public-school settings, where they can learn skills for coping as adults. States would also need to regulate these private schools carefully, much as they track the quality of charter schools.

Nonetheless, a thoughtful national voluntary experiment could show that special-ed students and their parents are better served by private schools, or at least by public schools that must compete with private schools.

In July, a presidential commission made recommendations on reforming the 1975 federal law on special education. It found the current system "often places process above results, and bureaucratic compliance above student achievement, excellence, and outcomes."

As Congress moves to revise that law next year, it should look seriously at Senator Gregg's voucher idea as a possible necessary next step toward reform.

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