Friday Freakout: What Parents of Special Needs Students Say to School Choice Naysayers
Today’s post features our first parent advocate-written Friday Freakout response. If you’re a parent and would like to contribute your story and opinions as well, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently, a friend brought to my attention an article in the Hechinger Report about proposed school choice legislation for students with special needs in Mississippi. The title read, “Vouchers may be ticket out of public schools for kids with disabilities—but is that a good thing?” My short answer as a parent and an advocate: For many, absolutely. But what “freakout” would be complete without breaking it down?
To clarify first, the proposed school choice program in question is not a voucher program. It is an education savings account (ESA) program. There’s a big difference. Vouchers allow families to transfer among public and private schools. ESAs allow parents to use a portion of their child’s education dollars to spend on one or a combination of learning services, including education therapies, specialized tutors, homeschool curriculum, tuition, and even college savings.
With that out of the way, the author opened the article claiming “advocates and parents aren’t sure [that leaving the public school system] will improve their education.” Well, I can say with complete certainty, keeping my dyslexic child in my district public school absolutely will not improve his education.
What this article and many others have failed to shed light on is the fact opponents don’t seem to consider how absurd it sounds for a parent to choose to keep their child in a private school that does a worse job of meeting their needs than their free district public school. Furthermore, opponents further decline to comment on the fact that, in many of our public school districts, students with special needs aren’t getting their needs met now.
Am I against public school? Not at all. In my case, the lack of training and lack of knowledge his teachers and school as a whole have in how to teach a dyslexic child is of no fault of their own. Which is precisely why a choice for us as his parents needs to be made available. We love his school and his teachers; I know they want him to succeed, but they are ill-equipped to provide him the instruction he needs. We are faced now with possible litigation in fighting for our district to provide for our child. Without an educational choice program, that is our only course of action.
We have sat through numerous Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings and nothing has changed in terms of outcomes for our child. The latest tests performed by the school shows he is more than 1,000 points below proficient, and he has been that way within their Special Education Department for the last three years. In meetings with our administration, I have been left not just feeling, but knowing, that his success does not benefit them financially; therefore, it is okay for him to continue to slip through the cracks.
That is not okay for any child, and certainly not mine.
Rightly compelled to provide the opposition’s opinions, the author went on to summarize their dire predictions that the program will send “disabled students to ill-equipped, unregulated schools and ultimately absolve the state of responsibility for students with disabilities.” Unfortunately, the balance ends there, as the article’s only two highlighted pull quotes were:
“It’s like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats.”
– Investigation on special education vouchers by the Miami New Times
“There are all kinds of ways that a child with special needs could be helped if their schools were given the resources they’re supposed to have.”
– Nancy Loome, executive director of The Parents’ Campaign (an action group fighting the bill)
What this article and many others have failed to shed light on is the fact opponents don’t seem to consider how absurd it sounds for a parent to choose to keep their child in a private school that does a worse job of meeting their needs than their free district public school. Furthermore, opponents further decline to comment on the fact that, in many of our public school districts, students with special needs aren’t getting their needs met now. Or if they admit it, they choose not to offer any practical suggestions on fixing the problem.
When I’ve asked for such solutions, I’ve been met with, similar to Loome’s response, the simple excuse that the public school systems are underfunded. That may be so, but if you were to ask public school-only advocates to present a budget on how they would spend the money if the formula were fully funded, you’ll oftentimes get a blank stare. The few times I have heard any opponent of the ESA program actually take a stab at answering the question, special education doesn’t even make the top 10.
The article correctly states that the opponents “say the bill does nothing to fix the actual problem.”That’s because there are laws out there already that are supposed to do just that and they aren’t working for so many children. The ESA bill doesn’t aim to directly fix the problems in the public school system.It aims to give parents options when their school district can’t or doesn’t abide by state and federal guidelines by allowing special needs kids to flounder. Sure, we parents can try to sue the school, but that will cost the district even more than the $7,000 per pupil the bill offers to students with special needs. Not to mention that, in most cases, it is exactly as effective as tilting at windmills, but way more expensive.
Over and over the article gives weight to unsubstantiated claims (actually known more commonly as“opinions”) about the abysmal education that your child will suffer by going to a school that is exempt from federal accountability requirements. Not once does it produce hard data to support its claims.
What the lobbyists and politicians seem to forget is that they are dealing with parents, not companies who will make judgment calls on sacrificing quality for lower cost. No, we want to give our kids the highest quality at whatever cost we can possibly afford. A vast majority of us parents with special needs students are not making decisions about our children based on some anti-public school vendetta for which we would sacrifice our child’s best education just to make a statement. We want what is best for our kids, whether it be a public school education or a private one.
I would love to keep my son in the public school. My taxes are paying for it already, so why would I want to double down if I didn’t believe that I could get his needs met outside the public school system?
Opponents of the ESA bill just want to throw money at the problem. What do parents like me experiencing the “fruits” of that problem want? I say throw my money back at me and let me see if I can do a better job. I don’t believe I could do any worse.
For more tips and resources for planning and providing for a child with special needs, check out this article by The Simple Dollar.