School Choice

Government-Run Schools Hurt the Learning Disabled Most of All

By analogy, food stamps recipients shouldn't be forced to shop at state-run supermarkets.


Libertarian businessman Bob Luddy is building private schools for the masses, where the average annual tuition is a mere $5,500. (Watch the video.) Parents are voting with their feet, opting to pay tuition rather than send their kids to "free" government schools.

One of several ways Thales manages to spend about 40 percent less per pupil than North Carolina's public schools is by not serving kids with severe learning disabilities, who require services that are impossible to deliver at a $5,500 price point. This is the most controversial aspect of its approach; one commenter reacted to our Thales video on Twitter by stating that this policy is "really all you need to know about the far right's education model."

Screwing those most in need is actually a hallmark of traditional public schools, and disabled children are the biggest victims of the government's near monopoly on K-12 education. Thales isn't a good fit for some kids for all kinds of reasons, but it's also a model that frees up state resources for school vouchers that make it possible for kids in need of extra services to afford private school.

Thales Academy |||

Yes, children with learning disabilities will often need taxpayer assistance. But by analogy—to paraphrase Milton Friedman—food stamp recipients shouldn't be forced to shop at government-operated supermarkets.

"One of the weaknesses of the modern public school system is that it tries to be all things to all people," says Terry Stoops, who's the director of education studies at North Carolina's John Locke Foundation. Learning disabled children, in particular, are poorly served when "grouped under one moniker," says Stoops, because different kids often require vastly different types of services.

North Carolina (like Ohio and Florida) has a school voucher program for disabled children. It currently serves 828 families who receive annual scholarships of about $8,000. (Stoops would like to see the program significantly expanded and the funding level increased.) Parents have plenty of options to find the perfect fit for their children—recipients of the disabilities grant currently spend their vouchers at 167 different private schools in North Carolina.

What happens in places that have no disability vouchers? Take New York City, where learning disabled students tend to be so poorly served that middle-class families often send them to private school and then sue the city for reimbursement on the grounds that their needs aren't being met.

They almost always win; as of 2016, there were 4,100 families getting tuition reimbursement. That number would be much higher if this strategy wasn't almost exclusive to upper-middle-class families, who have the means to front the money for attorney's fees and a year of tuition as their cases are adjudicated. What's that again about the "far right's education model?"

Watch "A Libertarian Builds Low-Cost Private Schools for the Masses."

National School Choice Week, an annual event promoting the ability of parents and students to have greater options in K-12 education, runs from January 22 through January 28. Over 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools from all 50 states will take place over the coming days. Go here to get more information about events and data about how increasing school choice–charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more–is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans. As a proud media sponsor of National School Choice Week, Reason will be publishing daily articles, podcasts, videos, interviews, and other coverage exploring the ways in which education is being radically altered and made better by letting more people have more choices when it comes to learning. For a constantly updated list of stories, go to Reason's archive page on "school choice."