Neoliberalism is a theory of political economy which holds that the well-being of individuals is best served by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedom in a framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of government is limited to keeping people safe and preserving the rules of the market and leaving to the markets services, including education, that it is assumed will be more efficiently delivered by the private sector. Educational policies in the US and in other countries around the world have been strongly influenced by market-based reforms including accountability, high-stakes testing, data-driven decision-making, charter schools, deregulation, and competition among schools. This paper summarizes current theory and research on the effects of market-based schooling practices on students with disabilities. The available evidence indicates that students with disabilities are not well served by market-based reforms and, further, free-market reforms may be fundamentally incompatible with the needs of students with disabilities.


Writing in 1955, economist Milton Friedman argued that the most effective means for reforming American education is to expose schools to the competitive forces of the free market. Toward this end, Friedman proposed that vouchers be made available to all parents, regardless of where they sent their children for schooling. Presumably, the competitive spirit of the free market provides a powerful incentive for schools to be efficient and effective in contrast to traditional public schools that, as monopolies, have no such incentives. Moreover, according to Friedman, the profit motive will lead to the emergence of a variety of schools to meet the demand for quality education. Along similar lines, others have argued that exposing schools to the forces of the market will spur curricular innovation and experimentation (Greene et al., 2010). In general, Friedman (1955) and other advocates of free-market reforms argue that the state's role in education be limited to ensuring that schools meet minimum standards but, otherwise, letting the forces of the market operate without interference.

Until the 1980s Friedman's proposal for school vouchers failed to garner much support (Molnar, 1999). However, the publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), which argued that American schools were undermining the competitive position of the United States in the global economy, and the strong backing of the Reagan administration breathed new life into Friedman's voucher proposal (Molnar, 1999). By 1990, influential economists Chubb and Moe concluded that opening up educational markets to competition was a necessary and sufficient condition for reforming American schools.

We think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea… . It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways. (Chubb & Moe, 1990, p. 217)

Advocates for market-based school reform argue that children who have not been well served in traditional public school settings—including students with disabilities—are especially likely to benefit from school choice (McGroarty, 2001). According to Anastasiou and Kaufman (2009), for example, advocates of free-market schooling believe that "market-oriented social practices should produce a surplus of special education providers, beyond state-run schools, to address the needs of parents, who are seen as the 'consumers' of schooling" (p. 210). Presumably, markets necessarily respond to potential "customers" in need of particular services, in this case educational services targeted to students with disabilities. Specifically, according to the libertarian Cato Institute, in a free-market system of education parents of students with disabilities would

find themselves transformed from combatants into customers. Instead of fighting each year over educational programming, parents would be invited to their local school to select from the menu of available special services… . Or the parent could take his or her child's total educational allowance to a private school of choice. (Cato Institute, 2003, p. 308)

Despite broad support for vouchers (e.g., Chubb & Moe, 1990; Enlow & Ealy, 2006), this particular free-market initiative has met considerable political resistance (Ravitch, 2010), leading free-market advocates to seek alternative ways to discipline American schools in the ways of the market. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), for example, dictates a range of market-inspired reforms, including "accountability, high-stakes testing, data-driven decision making, choice, charter schools, privatization, deregulation, merit pay, and competition among schools" (Ravitch, 2010, p. 21). Market-based reforms embodied in NCLB have achieved support across the political spectrum. Moreover, the free-market approach to educational reform that characterized the administration of George W. Bush, which built on Bill Clinton's "Goals 2000" education initiative, has largely been embraced by Obama administration (Ravitch, 2010).

These moves toward market-based schooling have stimulated a significant body of critique where it has been argued that, in the main, unfettered free markets governing economic, social, and educational affairs have exacerbated existing inequalities in societies where these policies have been implemented (e.g., Apple, 1996, 2000; Harvey, 2005; Howe & Welner, 2005; Hursh, 2007a, 2007b, 2008). There is, for example, "considerable data on how poor schools have, by and large, gotten poorer (in terms of relative education results and in terms of total income) and how rich schools (in the same terms) have got richer" (Hill, 2007, p. 113). Moreover, to the degree that student diversity affects profitability by requiring additional resources, market-based school reforms may sit uncomfortably with human differences. Market practices that promote efficiencies that tend toward standardization (Luke, 1998; Whitty, Power & Halpin, 1998), for example, favor high-achieving students who do not require curricular modifications and are, therefore, less costly to educate (Harvey-Koelpin, 2006; Howe & Welner, 2005). Similarly, the push toward deregulation that is inherent in the free-market philosophy (Harvey, 2005; Ross & Gibson, 2007; Ravitch, 2010) may not be congenial to students with disabilities who are characterized by cognitive, emotional and physical differences and educational needs that were routinely ignored until their right to an appropriate education was guaranteed by federal legislation in 1975.

This paper draws on theory and research on market-based schooling practices to consider the question: Are market-based school reforms in the interest of students with disabilities? In order to situate the discussion of market-based school reform in the broader context of the economic theory that animates these reforms, we begin with a brief discussion of free-market theory, often referred to as neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005). We then offer an overview of the status of market-based school reforms drawing on literature from English-speaking countries around the globe. Finally, we examine the effects—and the potential effects—of market-based reforms on the education of students with disabilities.

A Brief Overview of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a theory of political economy which holds that the well being of individuals can best be advanced "by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade" (Harvey, 2005, p. 2). In this formulation, the role of government is limited to keeping people safe from criminal behavior and foreign threats and preserving the rules of the free market "by enforcing contracts, preventing coercion, and keeping markets free" (Friedman, 1955). Individuals thrive, it is argued, when governments assiduously avoid regulation that interferes with the efficient operation of markets. Moreover, governments are expected to leave to the markets services, including utilities, transportation, and education, that could be more efficiently—and profitably—delivered by the private sector (Harvey, 2005). Presumably, "privatization and deregulation combined with competition … eliminate bureaucratic red tape, increase efficiency and productivity, improve quality, and reduce costs … through cheaper commodities and services and indirectly through reduction of the tax burden (Harvey, 2005, p. 65). Ultimately, the aim of advocates of an unfettered free market is the total freedom of movement for capital goods and services, freed from any restrictions imposed by the state. This economic principle outweighs any social cost resulting from reduced government services (Hill, 2007) since it is assumed that the free market, not the state, works best to satisfy the needs of individuals (Harvey, 2005).

Free-market economics not only alters the relationship between the individual and the state, but also the nature of the individuals. Neoliberalism promotes an extreme individualism in which people are expected to make an enterprise of themselves and the value of individuals is measured in terms of their contributions to the economy (Apple, 2000). In neoliberal constructions of the individual, notions of community and social solidarity are discarded in favor of "individualism, private property, [and] personal responsibility" (Harvey, 2005, p. 23). As autonomous individuals, it is assumed that people can—and will—act rationally in their own self-interest (Frank, 2000), but it is also assumed that those who fail to achieve economic and social success do so because of personal failings or a lack of entrepreneurial virtues (Harvey, 2005). The "invisible hand" of the market, first described by Adam Smith in 1776, provides an efficient mechanism for fairly determining which individuals are most deserving of the social and economic rewards of a free-market society (Barton & Slee, 1999; Hursh, 2008). In this way, markets operate in ways that are presumed to be fair, just, and, ultimately, democratic (Barton & Slee, 1999; Hursh, 2008).

It is worth noting that, in reality, pure forms of neoliberalism do not exist. Brenner and Theodore (2002) argue that, "actually existing neoliberalisms are always embedded within inherited frameworks of institutional organization, political-economic regulation, and sociopolitical struggle that decisively shape the forms of restructuring that are subsequently induced" (p. 30). In other words, in practice neoliberal reforms are always partial and, therefore, will necessarily look different in various cultural and political contexts. Political and cultural exigencies in places such as Russia, China, and the United States, for example, necessarily lead to different instantiations of free-market capitalism.

Critics argue that neoliberal reforms, however partial, have had the effect of exacerbating social and economic inequalities (Harvey, 2005; Hill, 2007; Martinez & Garcia, 2000). Harvey (2005), for example, details numerous case studies of economies across the globe (e.g., China, Russia, US) concluding that increased inequality is an inevitable consequence of neoliberal reforms. Other critics argue that neoliberalism undermines community (Hursh, 2008), diminishes the human experience (Hill, 2007; Olssen, Codd, & McNeil, 2004), and corrupts the meaning of democracy (Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998). Lipman (2007) argues that

Neoliberalism reframes all social relations, all forms of knowledge and culture in the terms of the market. All services established for the common good are potential targets of investment and profit-making. In the discourse of neoliberalism, the society becomes synonymous with the market, democracy is equated with consumer choice, and the common good is replaced by individual advantage. (p. 51)

In this analysis, neoliberalism casts all human relationships, including political relationships, in terms of the market. Moreover, the needs of individuals are viewed as secondary to the needs of the economy.

Despite these critiques, neoliberalism has emerged as the dominant political and economic force across the globe (Harvey, 2005). Moreover, the logic of free-market capitalism has achieved a level of common sense among ordinary citizens in post-industrial, democratic societies like the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (Harvey, 2005; Hursh, 2008), accounting for the rapid proliferation of neoliberal reforms in countries around the world.

Education and the Free Market

Although Chubb and Moe's (1990) ideal of free-market schooling unburdened by government control beyond the setting of minimum standards has not been achieved, advocates of free-market reforms have made significant progress in their quest to reshape schools. Some measure of school choice has, for example, taken hold in England and Wales, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. In Australia over one third of the student population attends government-funded, private schools (Ryan & Watson, 2004) while in New Zealand schools now compete for student enrollment (Wills, 2006). In England and Wales open enrollment policies, quasi-independent "grant-maintained" schools, and the annual publication of test scores ("league tables") for individual schools all facilitate school choice (Hursh, 2007a; Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998). In the US, school choice has primarily taken the form of charter schools although a provision of No NCLB allows parents to freely transfer their children from schools deemed to be "failing" to other schools in the same district. Charter schools in the US have expanded rapidly since the first charter opened in Minnesota in 1991 (McLaughlin & Rhim, 2007), but charters still enroll fewer than 3% of the total number of students enrolled in traditional public schools (Center for Education Reform, 2010). As of November 2010 there were over 5400 charter schools in the US serving more than 1.7 million students in 39 states and the District of Columbia (Center for Education Reform, 2010). Approximately one-sixth of these charters are operated by for-profit corporations (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Torquist, 2010).

The available research evidence indicates considerable variability in the quality of charters in terms of student achievement. Ravitch (2010), based on her review of the literature on the effectiveness of charter schools, concludes that the quality of charters, like the quality of traditional public schools, runs the gamut from excellent to poor with many in between. This assessment is borne out in a recent study of student achievement in charter schools by Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). This longitudinal study, which included over 70% of students enrolled in charters in the US, found that 17% of charters provided superior education for their students compared to traditional public schools. However, 46% produced achievement scores that were no different from local public schools and 37% produced results that were significantly worse than the local public schools (CREDO, 2009). On balance, achievement scores of students in charters nationally have been found to be roughly equivalent to student achievement in traditional public schools (Greene et al., 2010).

If the advocates of market-based educational reforms have had only limited success expanding school choice in the US, they have been far more successful redefining schooling in terms of economic competitiveness and infusing fundamental market principles into the structure of American schools (Hursh, 2009). The high-stakes testing and rigid accountability requirements written into NCLB (2001), for example, discipline schools in the ways of the market while providing the "objective" data administrators, policy makers, and parents require to hold teachers (and students) accountable and to enable parents (read: consumers) to make informed choices about schools for their children (Apple, 2000; Hursh, 2007a, 2007b).

NCLB and related reform efforts at the state and local level appear to have had little effect on student achievement, however (Berliner, 2003; Hursh, 2007b, 2008). Nor is there any evidence that NCLB-inspired reforms have done much to reduce the so-called "achievement gap" between more affluent, white students and black and Hispanic students and students living in poverty (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2009; Nichols & Berliner, 2007; Vinson & Ross, 2007). More seriously, critics argue that the high-stakes testing and accountability requirements of NCLB have exacerbated existing inequalities between poor schools and rich schools (Hill, 2007); increased the stratification of various school populations (Howe & Welner 2005); simplified curricula and lowered academic standards (Amrein & Berliner, 2002; Ravitch, 2010); and generally corrupted America's schools (Nichols & Berliner, 2007) by undermining notions of schooling based on principles of equity, social progress, and altruism in favor of a "market-based philosophy based on principles of academic excellence, choice and competition" (Rouse & Florian, 1997, p. 326). Of particular interest here is the effect of market-based reforms on the education of students with disabilities which is the focus of the following section.

Free Market School Reform and Students with Disabilities

According to advocates of free-market schooling, market-oriented practices should encourage a wide array of service providers to meet the needs of parents of students with disabilities who are positioned as "consumers" (Anastasiou & Kaufman, 2009). Moreover, the assumption is that

market mechanisms (through market competition among private and public providers) lead to the survival of the best…."Bad" schools will close, and the need for schools' economic survival will finally result in more efficient and responsive special education. (Anastasiou & Kaufman, 2009, p. 210)

Similarly, the testing and accountability requirements of NCLB, underpinned by the logic of the market, are intended to motivate teachers and other school officials to provide high-quality instruction for all students, including children and adolescents with disabilities. The available evidence indicates, however, that, in general, students with disabilities are not well served by market-based reforms including vouchers, charter schools, and the testing and accountability requirements of NCLB.

In the following sections we review the evidence on the effects of free-market reforms on the education of students with disabilities.


Milton Friedman's (1955) proposal for a free-market school system based on vouchers has been largely unrealized. There have, however, been limited-scale voucher programs implemented in a few US cities as well as several statewide voucher initiatives aimed specifically at students with disabilities. A recent research synthesis on the effects of vouchers indicates that, in general, there is "no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers (Usher, Kober, Jennings, & Rentner, 2011, p. 3). Although relatively little research is available on the effects of voucher programs on students with disabilities (National Council on Disability, 2003), some data are available. In Milwaukee, for example, the evidence has consistently indicated that students with disabilities are significantly underserved by the district's voucher program (Miner, 2003). Recent data indicate, for example, that while students with disabilities comprise nearly 20% of the public school population in Milwaukee only 1.6% of voucher students have identified disabilities (Resmovits, 2011). This disparity has led to a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an investigation by the US Department of Justice. In response, the Wisconsin Department of Instruction has argued that since state funds are used to support Milwaukee's voucher program, the program is not subject to federal anti-discrimination laws such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Resmovits, 2011).

Additionally, private schools accepting Milwaukee vouchers are not required to provide special education services or adhere to special education regulations. A voluntary survey in 2002 indicated that half of the voucher schools in Milwaukee provided no special education services. The effect of the Milwaukee voucher program on the academic achievement of students with disabilities is uncertain, however, since there is no requirement that private schools accepting vouchers provide any data on the achievement of voucher students (Miner, 2003). A voucher program in Cleveland mirrors the Milwaukee experience. Students with disabilities are underserved by the Cleveland voucher program and, like Milwaukee, achievement data for students who had been in special education when they left the Cleveland public schools are generally unavailable (Peterson, Howell, & Greene, 1999).

In 1999, the Florida state legislature established the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. Similar programs have been authorized in Arizona, Utah, Ohio, and Georgia (Mead, 2007). Under the Florida program any parent whose child has an IEP can obtain a voucher that parents can use to enroll their children in a private school of their choice. The value of the vouchers in the Florida program depends on the severity of a child's disability and, in the 2005-2006 school year, ranged from $4,805 to $20,708 (Mead, 2007). According to the most recent estimates, the parents of over 4% of students with IEPs in Florida are using the McKay Scholarship vouchers to enroll their children in private schools (Greene et al., 2010). Moreover, students with more severe disabilities attend private schools in the same proportion as in the public schools (Mead, 2007).

Telephone interviews with parents who have used McKay Scholarship vouchers to enroll their children in private schools indicate high levels of satisfaction with the voucher schools (Greene & Forster, 2003). However, since the private schools accepting the vouchers are exempt from state and federal accountability requirements, data on the academic achievement of special education students who attend voucher schools in Florida are unavailable; therefore, the quality of education for students with disabilities who use vouchers to attend private schools in the state is largely unknown (Mead, 2007). Although the data on the effects of voucher programs on students with disabilities are scarce, much more is known about the effects of charter schools on students with disabilities.

Charter Schools

Charters function as quasi-market schools (Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998) that are subject to at least some of the regulations that govern traditional public schools although specific regulations regarding charters differ from state to state. Charters are also subject to various federal regulations including regulations regarding the education of students with disabilities including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Charters may be managed by for-profit, educational management organizations (EMOs) or nonprofit entities, but, however they are structured, charter schools must produce acceptable test scores or risk the revocation of their charters (Swanson, 2004). In this context, students are transformed into "commodities" (Apple, 2000; Hursh, 2007a; Wills, 2006) who bring more or less value to charter schools. Students with high test scores enhance the reputation and, hence, the marketability of charter schools. Students who do not score well on tests threaten charters' competitiveness—and, ultimately, their survival.

Students' value is also determined by their impact on school budgets. For-profit charters, for example, seek to turn a profit; therefore, students who cost more to educate have less value than students who require fewer resources. Even in the case of charters managed by nonprofits, costly-to-educate students will have a disproportionate impact on fixed budgets. Students deemed to be disruptive will be valued least of all in such a system because these students both cost more to educate and interfere with the education (i.e., test scores) of other students. In a system where the survival of schools—and the jobs of teachers—depend on ever higher test scores, students with low scores or, worse, students who threaten the scores of other students by consuming a disproportionate share of scarce resources, including teacher attention, will be unwelcome. As a teacher interviewed by Harvey-Koelpin (2006) put it:

Teachers don't want [difficult-to-educate students]. If my job depends on their test scores…I don't want those kids. I do because I am a teacher and went into teaching to help kids. But if my job depends on it…my car payments depend on it…my apartment payment depends on it…I don't want those kids. (p. 141)

Given the focus on students' value as commodities, many charter schools engage in a practice that entails "siphon[ing] off those students who, because of their favorable background circumstances, will be easier and perhaps less costly to educate" (Lacireno-Paquet, Holyoke, Moser & Henig, 2002, p. 146) and who bring with them the high test scores that charters covet. This practice, which has been called "cream skimming," has its inevitable counterpart—exclusion. In charter schools, students with disabilities, who are more expensive to educate and who tend to produce lower test scores than students without disabilities, are among the most likely to be excluded, along with English-language learners and students from poor backgrounds (Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998; Zollers & Ramanthan, 1998; Wills & McLean, 2008; Miron, Urshel, Mathis, & Torquist, 2010).

New Orleans offers a compelling example of the underrepresentation of students with disabilities in charter schools. Since the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the majority of New Orleans public schools have been replaced by charters. At the beginning of the 2010-2011 academic year, "more than 70 percent of schools [were] independently chartered" (Mock, 2010). Advocates of free-market reform have touted the charter schools in New Orleans as a phenomenal success that "saved the public-education system in the city" (Mock, 2010, p. 2). But the success of New Orleans charter schools can be attributed, at least in part, to the disproportionately low percentage of the most difficult to educate students served by these schools. According to Mock (2010), "overall, almost a third of the city's 4,500 special needs students have been suspended by the Recovery School District" (p. 2) for disciplinary reasons and at least two charters have suspended over half of their students with disabilities. Excluding the most difficult to educate students insures that New Orleans' charters will do better than traditional public schools in New Orleans that must serve all students, including the city's lowest achieving and most difficult to educate students. It is uncertain whether students with disabilities are better served by charters in post-Katrina New Orleans. It is certain, however, that many students with disabilities are excluded by New Orleans charter schools.

Similar patterns have been found in other school districts across the US. Data from Boston, for example, reveal that more than half of the city's charter schools enroll fewer than 15% of students with special needs compared to the district average of 21%. In urban schools districts across Massachusetts, special education enrollment is 10% or lower at about a third of the charter schools in the state (Vaznis, 2009). In Oakland, California, comparable statistics have been reported: 4.6% of students in charter schools have disabilities as opposed to 10.45% in the district at large (Ravitch, 2010). Charter schools in Boulder and Chicago mirror these findings (Howe & Welner, 2005; Ladd, 2000).

Students with severe disabilities are even less likely to be enrolled in charters than students with milder disabilities. The evidence indicates that charter schools have "engaged in a pattern of disregard and often blatant hostility toward students with more complicated behavioral and cognitive disabilities" (Zollers & Ramanthan, 1998, p. 298).

In Texas, 51% of charter school students identified as having a disability were diagnosed with a learning disability, one of the mildest, and least resource-draining, disabilities (Estes, 2008). In San Diego, where nearly 10 percent of all students attended charter schools in the 2005-2006 academic year, only three students with the diagnosis of mental retardation were served in charter schools, while traditional district schools served more than a thousand such students (Hehir, 2010). A study of charter schools in California by Project Intersect (Rhim, Faukner, & McLaughlin, 2006) found that California charters enrolled a smaller proportion of students with disabilities and fewer students with severe disabilities than traditional public schools.

National data on charter schools and students with disabilities reinforce findings from states and local jurisdictions. In the 2007-2008 school year, students with disabilities constituted 13% of the public school population in the US. In contrast, only 9.8% of charter school students had IEPs (notably, an increase as compared with earlier data) (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tomquist, 2010). A report from the Rand Corporation (2001) also indicates that students with disabilities are underserved in charter schools. This pattern has also been found in other English speaking countries where market-based schooling has taken hold. In the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, free-market reforms have created an incentive for schools to attract "motivated" parents with "able" children (Apple, 2000) and to systematically exclude the neediest students, including students with disabilities (Andrews, 2002; Whitty, Power, & Halpin, 1998; Willis & McLean, 2008).

Although data on charter schools and students with disabilities is limited, the available statistical evidence supports the conclusion that students with disabilities, especially students with more severe disabilities, are significantly underserved by charter schools. But these statistics, based on averages across charter schools, mask a more disturbing trend. Many charters enroll few, if any, students with disabilities (Arsen & Ray, 2004). In a study of Texas charter schools, Estes (2003) found that "five schools enrolled more than 65% of the students with disabilities," while nearly 50% of charter schools reported serving "very few" students with disabilities. As Estes (2003) notes, "a small number of schools with unusually high numbers skewed the mean percentage" (p. 459). In New Orleans, where the overall population of students with disabilities is about 9%, a figure already well below the national average of 13%, the data reveal that some of the most "successful" New Orleans charter schools (i.e., those that produce the highest test scores) serve the lowest percentages of students with disabilities. These include, for example, the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science & Technology, with 3.29% enrollment; the KIPP Believe College Prep, with 5.41%; KIPP Central City Primary, with 6.67%; and, the Martin Behrman Elementary School, with 7.31% (Mock, 2010, p. 4). Again, the success of these charters may be, at least in part, a function of systematically excluding students with disabilities, students whose low test scores would adversely affect average achievement scores for these schools.

The evidence is clear that, in general, students with disabilities are underserved in charter schools. Yet, publically funded charters are prohibited from actively discriminating against students with disabilities. There are, however, a number of ways charters discourage students with disabilities from attending. As noted above, in New Orleans, a significant proportion of students with disabilities have been suspended (Mock, 2010). In the case of Massachusetts, Howe and Welner (2002) found that charters used several strategies to discourage students with disabilities:

"overtly" [and illegally] barring them upon discovering their disability, returning them to their former schools on the grounds that no suitable program exists for them, and "counseling them out" by appealing to their alleged best interests. (p. 217)

The tactic of offering "honest" advice that focuses on students' "best interests" (Estes, 2004) allows charters to justify exclusionary practices as fair and just. Even when students with disabilities are enrolled in charter schools they may not be well served although little achievement data exists with which to evaluate their performance (Hursh, 2007a). However, many charter schools indicate that they are either too small or lack the qualified staff to serve students with disabilities (Estes, 2003; Vaznis, 2009) although some argue that "instructional practices or small class sizes will address or mitigate the need for special education services" (Rhim & McLaughlin, 2001, p. 380). In some cases, administrators of charter schools have requested that parents of students with disabilities waive their IEP rights—and the corresponding legal protections of special education—on the pretense that smaller class sizes and unique instructional practices obviate students' need for these legal protections (Rhim and McLaughlin, 2001; Manno, Vanaurek, & Finn, 1990). This phenomenon makes it difficult to ascertain how well these students with disabilities are served once they have waived their IEP rights and are no longer officially tracked within the special education system. More seriously, discontinuing students' IEPs can have significant implications for their learning. Without IEPs, students are no longer guaranteed needed curricular accommodations, modifications, and related services. According to CAST, a nonprofit research and development organization, "current [special education] rules and procedures are the best—and only—way we know to minimize what has historically been grotesque discrimination against persons with disabilities (www.cast.org/publications/ncac).

It is likely that the needs of some students with disabilities are well served in charter schools. It may also be that some charters identify fewer students with disabilities because they offer high quality programs that make labeling unnecessary. But many students with disabilities are not well served in charter schools and, more seriously, many charters systematically exclude students with disabilities, thus creating highly segregated learning environments. In both the US and abroad, this means that "the sending districts [traditional public schools]" are left "stratified, fragmented, and segregated" (Miron & Nelson, 2002, p. 25). Students with disabilities are among the most likely to remain in local traditional public schools—"schools of last resort for those who never applied or who were rejected [by charter schools]" (Ravitch, 2010, p. 220). These "schools of last resort," overpopulated with low-achieving, difficult- and expensive-to-educate students, will be hard pressed to provide a quality education to students left behind.

Testing and Accountability

The free-market-inspired high-stakes testing and accountability regimen at the heart of NCLB was intended to remedy an "achievement gap" in which poor students, black and Hispanic students, and students with disabilities performed well below expectations. Specifically, NCLB promised to improve test scores and graduation rates for children "left behind," including students with disabilities. Recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate, however, that, to date, NCLB has had little effect on the reading and math scores of students with disabilities. Since 2002 1 reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students with disabilities are relatively unchanged as are math scores for students with disabilities in fourth grade. There has been a slight improvement in math scores for eighth graders since 2003 but, because of similar gains for eighth grade students without disabilities, the "gap" between students with and without disabilities at this grade level has changed little since the implementation of NCLB (NAEP, 2009).

Dropout and graduation rates for students with disabilities offer another possible measure of the effectiveness of high-stakes testing and accountability policies on the academic achievement of students with disabilities. National data on dropouts and graduation among students with disabilities since NCLB are, however, difficult to interpret because of lack of agreement about the meaning of "dropout" and differences in standards for graduation among the states. Data from individual states are suggestive, however. For instance, data from New York and Massachusetts indicate increases in the number of students with disabilities failing to graduate from high school since the implementation of high school exit exams in those states (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2004, 2009; New York State Department of Education, 2009).

It is not just that NCLB policies have failed to improve the achievement of students with disabilities. These policies have often led to practices that undermine the quality of education offered to many students with disabilities. The testing and accountability mandates of NCLB "define education as a commodity whose production can be quantified, standardized, and prescribed" (Lipman, 2007, p. 46). This has led to a general narrowing and dumbing down of the curriculum (Ravitch, 2010; Vinson & Ross, 2007) by "reducing learning to bits of information and skills to be taught and tested" (Ross & Gibson, 2007, p. 4), particularly for students who struggle in school (Hursh, 2007a). In the context of schooling informed by the logic of the market, quantifiable skills and standardized curricular practices support the need for comparative data for assessing and marketing schools. Brantlinger (2006) argues that in the logic of the market, "knowledge is standardized and commodified so it can be assessed by high-stakes measures" (p. 221). Standardized curricula, often in the form of pre-packaged, commercial reading or math programs, for example, address another market imperative: reducing costs and, in the case of for-profit schools, increasing profits (Zollers & Ramanathan, 1998).

This move toward standardization and one-size-fits-all curricula is potentially devastating for students with disabilities. Standardized curricula provide little space for teachers to make the necessary adaptations to address the specific needs of students with disabilities (Harvey-Koelpin, 2006)—as well as any student positioned outside the mythical norm (Dudley-Marling & Gurn, 2010). And when students with disabilities fail to achieve in the context of standardized curriculum, standardized assessment, and standardized instruction—all targeted to putatively "normal" students—failure is situated in the minds and bodies of students rather than in the schooling practices that produced failure in the first place (Dudley-Marling, 2004). Maria de la Lu Reyes (1992) offers a useful analogy for illustrating how this works:

similar to the 'one size fits all' marketing concept that would have buyers believe that there is an average or ideal size among men and women…those who market 'one size fits all' products suggest that if the article of clothing is not a good fit, the fault is not with the design of the garment, but those who are too fat, too skinny, too tall, too short, or too high-waisted." (p. 435)

Ultimately, standardized, one-size-fits-all curricula, assessment, and instruction serve the needs of policy makers, publishers and others who would make a profit from schooling, but not the children who have to endure these practices.


More than 20 years ago, economists Chubb and Moe (1990) argued that free-market schools were a panacea for an American school system that was failing to meet the needs of many of its students, including students with disabilities. However, although there are certainly exceptions, our review of the literature indicates that students with disabilities have generally not profited from free-market reforms including high-stakes testing, and rigid accountability requirements that lead to one-size-fits all curricula that ignore differences in learning styles and abilities and vouchers and charter schools that skim high achieving, less costly to educate students from traditional public schools which are left with fewer resources and more challenges.

Neoliberalism's valorization of the individual, in which school success and failure are conceptualized in terms of individual responsibility, does little to address systemic factors — poverty, discrimination, under-resourced and overcrowded schools and classrooms — that produce so much school failure in the first place. In this framework, school failure is firmly situated in the minds and bodies of individuals who are expected to "overcome" their physical and mental disabilities with plenty of models provided of people who have done so. And, when the equality of opportunity fails students with disability, it is the students who are to blame, not the structures of schooling or other factors that privilege students perceived to be "normal" thereby justifying a reallocation of funding to those students who are more likely to make the most significant contributions to the economy (see Murray, 2009 for an elaboration of this argument).

It could be argued that, given time, the market will select the best schools and best practices benefitting all students whose needs are not being met in traditional public schools including students with disabilities. However, it is our view that free-market based schooling practices are fundamentally incompatible with human difference in whatever form — language, race, culture, gender, disability status, and SES. The tendency toward standardization associated with the demand to achieve economy of scale and maximum profitability will never serve the needs of students who, by definition, do not fit the "standard." Perhaps the most serious threat to students with disabilities — and other non-standard students — comes from the neoliberal dogma that the ultimate value of individuals is measured in terms of their contributions to the economy (Apple, 2000). In this context, children are transformed into commodities whose value is determined by test scores and the cost to educate them. Here students with disabilities, because they tend to produce lower test scores and to be more costly to educate, will have less value. Ultimately, no one's interests are served when concepts of human rights and human dignity are supplanted by measures of economic utility.

It is, however, highly unlikely that the call for market-based school reforms will abate any time soon. Currently, the Obama administration is calling for expanded testing and accountability measures and many states are expanding charter schools and voucher programs. So the question is how to insure high quality education for students with disabilities in the current context of free-market schooling. Here we offer a few modest proposals.

First, there is a need to rethink the current accountability paradigm that focuses almost exclusively on test scores. For instance, instead of schools, administrators, and teachers being accountable to ever higher test scores we suggest a model of accountability based on the ability of educators to demonstrate to parents and other stakeholders that every effort has been made to push every student, regardless of (dis)ability, as far as they can go as learners. And if these efforts are unsuccessful teachers and administrators must show what else has been done to help individual students succeed in school. A bottom line issue here is that all students must be challenged with the sort of rich, engaging curriculum found in the highest achieving schools and classrooms (Dudley-Marling & Michaels, in press).

Second, there is a need to broaden evaluation criteria for individual students in all educational settings beyond high stakes tests that offer a highly circumscribed view of student learning. Broadening evaluation to include informal teacher evaluation, reports from parents, and student self-assessment, for example, give children the opportunity to reveal what they know and what they have learned and provide teachers with a clearer sense of how to support student learning. As Simi Linton (1998) puts it:

Goals and standards are shifted not downward but out, to a more flexible and broader means of demonstrating competence. The burden to "keep up" is shifted off the individual student, and the whole classroom environment shifts in its overall procedures and expectations to maximize learning for all. (p. 60)

Finally, it almost goes without saying that any school, including charter schools and private schools accepting publically funded vouchers, must be expected to adhere to federal and state regulations regarding the education of students with disabilities. But this may also be an opportunity to imagine more than mere a technical compliance with special education laws and regulations that can undermine the spirit of those regulations (Fulcher, 1989). Individualized Education Plans, for instance, are of little use if they result in a dumbing down of the curriculum (Dudley-Marling & Michaels, in press). Similarly, accessibility isn't useful if the curriculum being accessed isn't rich and engaging. Nor is inclusion helpful if it refers only to the mere physical presence of students with disabilities. Instead of getting students with disabilities ready to be included, we need to imagine schools structured to make room for the full range of ways people live their lives.

One of the arguments for charter schools is that market forces will spur curricular innovation and experimentation (Greene et al., 2010). So far, there is little evidence that this is occurring although Downing, Spencer, and Cavallaro (2004) offer a rare description of a charter school that is working to be truly inclusive. The evidence indicates charter schools and other market-based reforms will continue to expand. In this context we offer the following challenge to advocates of free-market schooling: use the flexibility that has been granted to charter schools to create truly inclusive classrooms that go beyond technical compliance with special education regulation to meet the spirit of the law. If the charter school movement eventually contributes to the quest for inclusive classrooms they will have proved their worth. However, we are skeptical that the spirit of inclusion with it emphasis on the common good will ever be compatible with the competitive individualism that underpins free-market schooling.


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  1. There was a significant jump in NAEP scores for students with disabilities after 2002 following a policy change that allowed for accommodations for students with disabilities.

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