Author Archives: Marnie Kaplan

School Voucher Programs for Students with Disabilities Are Deeply Misguided

The Trump administration’s newly proposed education budget directs $400 million dollars to expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has repeatedly touted state voucher policies, including Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities, as a way to increase parental choice and improve the U.S. education system. DeVos cited high parent satisfaction with the McKay program during her Senate confirmation hearing, leading to national press coverage of parents who were in fact unsatisfied with the program.

But the reality is parent satisfaction is an inappropriate metric for examining the effectiveness of programs like the McKay Scholarship. A voucher program for students with disabilities presumes that providing choice will ultimately result in helping students with disabilities receive an education that will best meet their needs. But this is unlikely because private schools do not have to abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, and few private schools are well equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

In a recent op-ed, Former Governor Jeb Bush writes: “Too many parents hit frustrating dead ends in trying to get the right services for their children in their assigned public schools.” While it is certainly true that parents struggle to make changes when they are unhappy with their child’s placement or his/her individualized education plan (IEP), there is little reason to believe school choice is the answer. Currently, many parents do not understand their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents also may feel uncomfortable bringing due process claims and/or lack access to legal assistance. Moreover, even for those with legal assistance, due process claims can be time consuming and costly. As a result, researchers have found that IDEA’s reliance on private enforcement leads to disparities in enforcement which ultimately favor the affluent.

Voucher programs do little to change this reality.

Currently, under the Florida program, parents receive an average of $8,000 for their child with a disability. This is not enough funding for students to attend private schools specifically designed to serve special needs students without extra outlays from parents. Instead, many students enroll in parochial schools, which make up the majority of private schools in Florida. There is little reason to believe these schools are a better placement for students with disabilities. Most do not employ school psychologists, related service providers, or teachers experienced with meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Since these schools are not required to comply with IDEA, they do not provide occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, or counseling. Moreover, these schools are not required to use any specialized curriculum to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. So using a voucher means a student with a disability will still not receive the services they need to be successful in school.

Another popular defense of the McKay Scholarship program is the fact that students with disabilities are often unfairly disciplined. Jeb Bush writes: “…It is well documented that students with disabilities are far more likely to be abused, bullied, isolated and subjected to harsh punishment.” Yet, a voucher program allowing students with disabilities to attend private schools actually makes it more likely that students with disabilities will be unfairly disciplined. Since private schools are not required to comply with IDEA, they can discipline a child for behavior that is a manifestation of his/her disability. Moreover, as a recent New York Times article revealed, parents have no legal recourse when their child receiving a McKay scholarship is kicked out of a participating private school. In contrast, in a public school, a child with a disability cannot be punished for a behavior that is considered a manifestation of his/her disability, and he/she has a legal right to a hearing.

According to a recent NPR article about the McKay program, a child named Reed thrived in a private school because of the “many caring hearts in the building.” But students with disabilities need more than caring hearts in a building. They need experts trained in the best methods for educating students with disabilities and schools well-prepared to address their unique learning needs. In fact, Reed’s parents chose to spend $100,000 a year of their own money on speech therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavior analysis (an intensive form of coaching for autism). On top of that, they paid to bring a therapist to the school to help their son’s teachers learn how to work with him. Reed’s parents may be satisfied with their voucher, but most parents cannot afford to pay for all of these services. Instead, children placed in private schools through McKay simply stop receiving the services they have been granted under their previous IEPs.

There is little evidence to prove that the McKay Scholarship program is working. There is minimal data collected on the program beyond the number of students enrolled, and there is only one study of parent satisfaction from 2003. Beyond that, its unclear how many parents would have chosen to pay for a private school placement without the scholarship, or how much parents pay out of pocket to provide their child with counseling, occupational therapy, speech therapy and other necessary services. Moreover, there is no testing data collected for these students, and they don’t have IEPs with clearly articulated yearly goals. So it remains unclear if the 31,000 children in the program are thriving in their school placements or making yearly progress.

The fact that the average usage of the scholarship is 3.6 years hints that students “out on McKay” attend more schools during their K-12 schooling than the average student. This is likely harming the children in the program. Research has repeatedly shown that frequently switching schools negatively impacts a child’s social, emotional, and academic development. The likelihood of negative impacts is even greater for students with disabilities who often struggle with disruptions in routine and transitions. Imagine the disruption for a child with autism who adapts to a new school environment in second grade only to change schools a year later when the private school announces it can no longer meet his needs.

Ultimately, the McKay Scholarship program — and any voucher program for students with disabilities — fails to remedy the very problems it was supposedly designed to address. Vouchers shuffle students with disabilities into schools that are unprepared to meet their needs. Some students may flourish, but many more will flounder without an IEP and appropriate supports. And there is strong reason to believe most of these students will wind up back in a public school placement (as did almost every child profiled in the New York Times and NPR articles). Every parent of a child with a disability should be provided assistance navigating the contours of IDEA and access to advocates who will help them find an appropriate placement and necessary supports for their child. A voucher to a private school is simply not what these parents need.

3 Big Myths About Child Care on Equal Pay Day

Last week, the internet Greek chorus turned its attention to a previously wonky topic: DC’s educational requirements for child care workers. A Washington Post article highlighted that DC is first in the nation to require higher education for child care workers, and a plethora of commenters took to Twitter to criticize the policy. Various individuals commented on the “stupidness” of this new policy. For example, Senator Ben Sasse tweeted: “This is insanely stupid.” Economist Alan Cole tweeted: “What’s the endgame for someone who can’t make it through college? Are they going to be allowed to do things anymore?” The article transformed into a Rorschach test revealing Americans’ antiquated view of child care.

Baby Bottle Robot 

The reality is that many Americans still view child care through a prism of babysitting. They desire the cheapest option: a safe baby with a caregiver of minimum capability, like someone who can easily read aloud to their child. As a result, many parents overrate the quality of their child’s day care. But the reality is child care is complex and skilled work that remains deeply undervalued. And today as throughout history, it’s work mostly performed by women.

Today, on Equal Pay Day, let’s pause and consider three persistent myths about child care, which ultimately hold women back from achieving equal pay with men:

MYTH #1: Child care is menial work which can be done by anyone.

Many critics of the new credential requirements in Washington, DC implied that child care is necessarily low-wage work because it requires minimal skill. Commenters were unified in asserting that high-quality care-taking did not require specific competencies and in undervaluing the actual work of nurturing and addressing the demanding needs of small children. These viewpoints belie the reality that adults who educate young children require knowledge and competencies as specialized as those of an elementary, middle school, or high school teacher. A successful early childhood teacher needs to understand child development; language development; and how to foster early literacy, early numeracy, and positive socio-emotional development, among other skills. Continue reading

Three Lessons for Reforming State Early Childhood Systems “In Crisis”

preschool teacherLast week, Massachusetts’ House Speaker Robert DeLeo declared his state’s early childhood workforce “in crisis.” How did he come to this conclusion? A year ago, DeLeo asked local business leaders to examine the state’s early childhood education system, and last week they released a report showing unacceptably low salaries and high turnover among early childhood educators in the state.

But Massachusetts is no anomaly. If we applied the criteria used by the Massachusetts Advisory Group to any state in the country, that state’s early childhood workforce would also be deemed “in crisis.”

So what can state legislators serious about reforming their early childhood workforce do? Past efforts to improve public pre-k programs and federal efforts to professionalize the Head Start workforce offer several lessons. Continue reading

A Very American Story: Access Determined by Zip Code

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We’ve accepted in American political discourse and rhetoric that “a zip code should not determine a child’s future.” But our public policies have a long way to go, especially in the domain of early childhood education, one of the most effective policy strategies for ensuring low-income children are prepared for academic and lifelong success. In fact, a report published last month by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reveals that an eligible child’s access to Head Start — the only federal pre-k program — is constrained by where he/she resides.

Head Start was first instituted in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’’s War on Poverty. The program served low-income children long before most states adopted state-funded pre-k programs and specifically aimed to ameliorate the effects of growing up in poverty through comprehensive child development programs. Started as a niche summer program that served 560,000 children, today Head Start serves nearly one million children across the country year round.

NIEER’s State(s) of Head Start is the first report in Head Start’s 50-year history to examine Head Start enrollment, funding, quality, and duration across the states. It reveals that only 18% of low-income three-year-olds and 21 percent of low-income four-year-olds receive Head Start services. Additionally, it shows that access to Head Start varies greatly by state. For example, among three- and four-year-olds living in poverty, 100% of eligible children in North Dakota attended Head Start programs in 2014-2015, whereas just 16% of eligible children in Nevada were enrolled in Head Start programs. In other words a poor three- or four-year-old in Nevada has less than a one in five chance of attending Head Start, while a poor child in North Dakota has a 100% chance of attending Head Start.

Even less three-year-olds living in poverty across the country have access to Head Start. The number of enrolled three-year-olds as a percent of children in poverty ranges from 2.7% in Nevada to 13% in the District of Columbia. The picture for low-income children in Nevada is concerning. There is a large population of children living in poverty, but the state has the lowest percentage of children living in poverty enrolled in Head Start of any state. In certain states the lack of Head Start spots would be less concerning because they have robust state pre-k programs that serve a high percentage of low-income children. This is not the case in Nevada.  Nevada’s public pre-k program is not serving these vulnerable children. Overall, only 6.72% of four-year-olds in the state are enrolled in Head Start or state funded pre-k.

Further complicating access inequities is the fact that states with large Hispanic populations are receiving less money per child enrolled in Head Start. Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas — all states with large Latinx populations — receive less funding per Head Start child than the national average.

In the report, authors Barnett and Friedman-Krauss write: “We can think of no reason that poor children in one state are less deserving of a strong early childhood program than those in another.”

So what actually explains these inequities? Continue reading

PaidLeave4DC is Good for Children and Families but Hardly “Generous”

Earlier this week, the DC Council passed “one of the nation’s most generous” paid family leave policies. As I’ve written previously, these policies improve a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, which in turn improves a child’s lifelong academic achievement. Paid leave also increases infant health since it increases the likelihood of early childhood checkups and immunizations.

But DC’s policy can hardly be viewed as an adequate amount of time to best foster child development. While DC’s policy marks important progress for the District’s children, the policy can only be deemed one of the country’s most generous because American policies are anachronistic and backwards.

We are the only industrialized nation with no federal law mandating parental leave — other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries offer an average of thirty six weeks. It’s easy for any new policy passed by a US municipality or state to be deemed “generous,” “cutting edge,” or “revolutionary.” At this rate, a state mandating a week of paid family leave could be deemed generous — even though such a policy would have minimal impact on young children and their families.

The original DC proposal would have offered sixteen weeks paid parental leave and was therefore viewed as groundbreaking. The Council ultimately passed a bill providing only eight weeks of leave, but despite this, news coverage nonetheless focuses on the generosity of the plan. Sure, the eight weeks provided by the DC bill is more than the six weeks passed by the San Francisco board of supervisors in April (which was also deemed at the time the “most generous family leave law”) or the four weeks provided in Rhode Island. And the 90% of pay provided under the DC plan (capped at $1,000 a week) is more generous than New York State’s plan to provide 67% of an employee’s pay.

Others view DC’s plan as generous because it offers leave to parents of both genders, as opposed to, for example, the six weeks offered to pregnant mothers in PEOTUS Donald Trump’s proposed child care plan. But all of these offerings are less than the amount of time recommended by doctors — at least twelve weeks, but preferably twenty four weeks. And they pale in comparison to international norms. Parents in Korea are offered 52 weeks of paid leave. Parents in at least 16 countries receive such generous leave policies they can be measured in a larger metric: a year.

How did the US come to be so backwards when it comes to leave policies?  By World War II, almost all developed countries offered working women some form of paid maternity leave. The US remained an outlier. For decades, Democrats sought to pass a paid parental leave bill. In 1993, they settled for the Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), which provides up to 12 weeks unpaid family leave for employees to care for seriously ill family members or the arrival of a child. This federal law only applies to employees who work at companies with 50 employees, and on top of that, many workers are unable to take advantage of the law because they cannot afford to do so. Family leave advocates viewed the FMLA as a starting point but have been unable to expand the law in the intervening fifteen years. As a result, paid family leave has come to be viewed as a political pipe dream.

But in the last few years, at the local and state level, things have begun to change. One reason for this — besides the lack of a workable federal approach — is an Obama Administration Department of Labor program which provided federal grants to help cities design paid family leave proposals.

We should continue to celebrate any and all state and local efforts to guarantee paid family leave. But conversations about our country’s progress must consistently acknowledge the truly antiquated nature of our current approach to parental leave. Only 12% of workers in the U.S. have paid family leave, and less than half of US companies offer paid leave. Access is largely determined by income.

You know who actually provides the most “generous,” “cutting edge,” and “revolutionary” family leave policies? Tech companies such as Adobe, Amazon, Google, Etsy, Microsoft, Netflix, Spotify, and Twitter; the credit card company AmEx; and the Swedish-based company Ikea. Netflix offers up to a year of leave. In March, Etsy announced a plan offering twenty six weeks of paid leave to parents of either gender. A week ago, AmEx announced that it will offer twenty weeks of paid leave to parents of either gender. Earlier this month, Ikea announced that it will offer sixteen weeks paid parental leave to American employees of either gender. Ikea’s policy is notable because it provides the same benefits to salaried and hourly workers, whereas most corporate policies only apply to high-skilled employees. This inequality is exactly why we need government laws to mandate paid family leave.

If the policy goes into effect (Congress can override it), DC will be one of the few “states” to offer both paid leave for employees and universal pre-k to all three and four year olds — demonstrating a true commitment to serving young children and their families. Together these two critical early childhood policies could improve the academic achievement and life outcomes of an entire generation of children.