Friday Freakout: Public Schools Good, Private Schools Bad

A recent Huffington Post article, “‘School Choice’ — As Long as Your Child Doesn’t Have a Disability,” shows just how passionate many are when it comes to ensuring students with special needs are receiving the education they deserve. 

But that HuffPo piece also perpetuated a common myth: Only public schools can adequately serve children with special needs.

We responded to the author’s claim that students with special needs are not represented in Milwaukee’s voucher program with some important facts, including a few voucher student stories to provide balance. But as we read through the comments section of that law student’s post, we came across this week’s freakout.

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Mack demonstrates the misinformation and sweeping generalizations that school choice critics publish all too often. Thankfully though, this provides a teachable moment.

To be clear, no one is denying that many public schools have helped drive awareness for various disabilities, nor that many public schools have quality programs for students with disabilities. But we do draw the line at two falsehoods the HuffPo author and Mack Paul insist are truths.

CLAIM: No private schools are equipped to teach students with special needs, and those schools don’t hire trained faculty and teachers.

No doubt some private schools do not have the resources (public schools have) to serve some children with special needs. But does that really mean all private schools fail at that task?

After all, have public school advocates ever felt it fair or accurate that the poor performance or lackluster service of a few public schools be thrust upon all public schools?

Regardless, there are numerous private schools across the country that do serve children with disabilities—some even specialize in it. Their teachers and staff? Qualified, certified, and proven to help their students improve.

Here are just a couple in Wisconsin:

  • Lutheran Special School and Education Services “serve students who struggle with unique learning challenges and/or emotional difficulties.” That includes children with ADHD, learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, cognitive disabilities and more. The school has “two self-contained elementary classrooms located in Milwaukee Lutheran High School, resource rooms at three local Lutheran elementary schools, a school-to-work program, Teacher Consultant services, art therapy services, and various other teacher and parent resources.” The school welcomes students of all faiths and belief systems, and it will work with families to discuss tuition costs and options. It is also a voucher-accepting school.
  • St. Coletta Day School of Milwaukee describes itself as “a nonprofit, nonsectarian educational program for students with special needs.” They accept students with all types of disabilities and are very transparent about their services and what they expect of their students and families. St. Coletta is also a voucher-accepting school.

Also, the Trinity School in Oklahoma City is a powerful example of how voucher students with special needs can be served by private educations:

But if school voucher critics have a problem with student-private school matches, the answer is not to take away parent’s ability to choose. Rather, we should empower more—preferably all—parents to leave unsatisfactory schools of whichever sector. Once that happens, we should take steps to encourage private school transparency and the growth of high-quality open seats for students with disabilities.

One way to do that is to create an environment in which great educational programs that already exist, such as the ones above, can grow. How? School vouchers and education savings accounts provide more parents of kids with special needs the financial ability to purchase those services. And when they do that, those great services can afford to expand to serve more children.

Requiring transparency of schools is how we keep them honest and enable parents to determine whether the schools can properly meet their children’s needs.

CLAIM: Children with special needs are always better served in public schools.

Yes, many students with disabilities receive a great education in public schools. But do school choice critics really believe public schools and private schools have never shared the same experiences in terms of serving students with special needs? One sector need not always be virtuous by nature, nor the other dubious.

The fact is the same way some private schools have admitted they cannot serve certain children’s special needs, some public schools have refused to serve certain children with special needs, too. Additionally, just as some private schools struggle to meet students’ particular needs so too have many public schools. We’ll provide evidence of that in the same form provided by the author of the HuffPo piece that Mack endorsed: anecdotes.

Here are three real stories from children with disabilities from Christian D’Andrea’s HuffPo rebuttal on our blog:

Keo from Utah 

Keo was adopted at a young age, and his parents realized he had unique needs. Keo has been diagnosed with the behavioral disorder called Reactive Attachment Disorder, which manifests in such behaviors as withdrawing from others, acting aggressively toward peers, and failing to ask for support or assistance. He continued to struggle in his zoned public school despite the school’s awareness of his special needs. His parents found New Hope Academy, which specializes in behavior challenges, and the school accepted Keo with open arms. With the help of a school voucher, his parents were able to afford tuition. “He is doing much better but has a very long way to go. We need this money to keep him at this school until he is able to transition back to a regular school…. We have been so blessed to find this school and then to qualify for this scholarship,” Keo’s mother Kim said.

Shawn from Ohio

Shawn suffered multiple medical complications at birth, including Cerebral palsy. For years he attended his zoned public school, where he was told he would never learn what the “normal” kids learn. His peers also bullied him because of his disabilities, but the school was unsuccessful in resolving the bullying. His mother was determined that Shawn could learn and deserved a learning environment that welcomes and supports him. She found the Creative Learning Workshop (CLW), a school with a specialized program for children with disabilities, and Shawn was accepted. Shawn’s father is a truck driver, and combined, his family could not afford CLW’s tuition. A school voucher made it possible. Now, Shawn is thriving; he loves going to school. Hear his story in his own words here.

Dillon in Oklahoma 

Dillon was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was seven. His mother, a single mom, was able to afford a private kindergarten, but was unable to afford private elementary school. She enrolled Dillon in their zoned public school, where he was treated differently. The bullying he experienced was so severe, he would come home from school and tell his mother that he wanted “to go to heaven because everyone hated him at school.” At eight-years old, he was hospitalized for three months at an institution to prevent him from harming himself. Finally with the help of a school voucher, his mother was able to enroll him in Trinity Episcopal School, which had a specialized program to suit his needs and a student culture of acceptance. Now, Dillon has friends and he looks forward to going to school. He tells his own story in a video alongside many other students with disabilities here.

No cure-all exists to make every public or private school a perfect fit for every child with special needs—or any child for that matter. All school choice vouchers and education savings accounts do is open the doors to match students to the schools that work best for them—with parents doing the choosing.

School choice’s supporters and critics shouldn’t fight over which sector is “good” and which is “bad” because both have leaders and laggards. We should come together to focus on making sure all families, not just the privileged, have access to the complete list of options to find the environment that works for them, public or private. After all, both have proved they’re up to the task.