Those who read The Examiner's July 16th cover story, "DCPS forcing special needs kids into unfit public schools," might not realize that approximately the same number of students in D.C. attend private schools using school vouchers as attend private schools through placements due to a severe learning disability.
Both programs ostensibly serve the same goals -- allowing private providers to meet the needs of D.C. students whom the public sector cannot educate to the standards of parents or federal law. Yet these two programs could not be treated more differently.
About 1,700 students in the 2012-13 academic year will attend private schools in the District because of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program, which since 2004 has given vouchers of up to $7,500 for low-income students to attend a private school of their choosing, costs about $14 million per year and is funded out of a separate congressional budget line item that does not take a dime away from DC Public Schools.
Similarly, about 1,700 students will attend private schools this year through a placement program for students with extreme learning disabilities. At a cost of approximately $110 million (about one-tenth of D.C.'s billion-dollar budget), students with physical, intellectual or emotional issues will attend special programs in private schools to cope with their extraordinary learning needs.
One of these programs is extremely controversial. The other one people barely know about. Can you guess which is which?
If you picked the Opportunity Scholarship Program as controversial, you're right. The OSP has been under attack ever since its initial enactment, and every yearly reauthorization has come with a fight. The Obama administration has staked out a position that "the Federal Government should focus its attention and available resources on improving the quality of public schools for all students." Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently commented that "we remain convinced that our time and resources are best spent on reforming the public school system to benefit all students."
The teachers unions share this sentiment. In 2009, the National Education Association argued in a letter to Congress that "Vouchers are not the real solution. Pulling 1,700 students out of a system that serves 65,000 doesn't solve problems -- it ignores them."
Yet, although they oppose the public funding that puts 1,700 poor students into private schools, neither the Obama administration nor the teachers unions has made such arguments about the private placement of 1,700 special needs students.
Learning disabilities cut across all economic and social strata. Rich and poor, black and white -- physical and learning disabilities can affect anyone. This produces a large, broad-based and politically influential constituency to look out for special needs children. And this is a good thing.
But the defenders of vouchers are all low-income parents. They do not have the same political clout as those advocating choices for special needs students. As a result, they do not have nearly the same spectrum of choices that middle- and upper-class parents have, and they are much more likely to have their children clustered in the lowest-performing schools in the United States. This is a bad thing.
Opponents of public funds going to private schools can get away with pushing poor parents around; they cannot nearly as easily get away with pushing around the parents of students with special needs.
This differential treatment is simply hypocritical. If voucher opponents don't think public dollars should end up in private schools, they should oppose it for students with specials needs with the same vigor as they do for poor students.
Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.