In 1975, Congress passed legislation giving students with disabilities the right to an appropriate education at public expense. But having a right is only as good as your ability to enforce it. In New York City and elsewhere, public schools regularly delay and frustrate disabled students seeking appropriate services–everything from tutoring to speech therapy to treatment of severe disabilities–making their federally protected right all but meaningless. Rather than compelling families with disabled children to contend with obstinate public school systems, we should give them the option of purchasing the services they need for their children from a private provider. That is, we should give them special-ed vouchers–good for the same amount of money that we already spend on them in the public school system–that they could then use to pay for private school. Not only would this bring better services to disabled New York students; it could also save the public money.
Many parents of disabled students have a lot of trouble ensuring that public schools give their kids an appropriate education. The parents have to know what they’re entitled to, and most do not. They must negotiate services from the local schools–but the schools are experienced in these negotiations, while the parents generally aren’t, so the schools often get away with minimizing their responsibilities. And even if parents win at the negotiating table, getting the schools actually to deliver on their promises is enormously difficult.