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Parental school choice, special education, K-12 education


Two highly controversial issues in the field of K-12 education in the U.S. are special education and parental school choice. Those two policy concerns converge surrounding the question of what proportion of students in school voucher programs compared to public schools have education-related disabilities, and whether or not the two school sectors are properly classifying and serving students with special education needs. We might expect private voucher-receiving schools to serve fewer students with disabilities than local public school systems due to the legal framework and institutional incentives surrounding special education and private schools. Most federal disability laws do not apply to private schools. The private schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), which is our subject here, do not receive any extra government funds to serve students with disabilities. Still, if only a small portion of all MPCP students have disabilities, that finding would raise questions regarding the extent to which the program is fulfilling its original mission to serve disadvantaged students in Milwaukee. Based on evidence we collected over five years of studying the MPCP program, we are able to estimate that between 7.5 and 14.6 percent of MPCP students have disabilities that likely would qualify them for special education services were they attending Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Our strongest analytical lever in generating that range is an individual fixed-effects estimation of the likelihood of being classified as a special education student in MPCP compared to MPS for the 20 percent of our sample who switched between the school sectors during our study. We also draw upon student disability classifications of private school principals, parent surveys, and school visits to inform our analysis. Our estimated rate of actual student disability in the MPCP is between 23 and 61 percent lower than the rate of student disability of 19 percent reported for MPS. Our estimates, however, are more than four times higher than the official disability rate of 1.6 percent for the MPCP announced by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction based merely upon the percentage of MPCP students who were given accommodations during the most recent round of accountability testing.