Friday Freakout: Some Public Schools Choose Not to Serve Every Child, Block Other Options

Rankin County, Mississippi parents of students with autism are upset after it was reported this week their public schools will be ending specialized classrooms for their children. According to the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger:

“The Rankin County School District will abolish a key component of its autism program next school year despite protests from parents who say their children have thrived in the specialized environment.

Parents were told this week the two K-6 autism classrooms at the district’s Oakdale Elementary School will close and their children will be moved into self-contained settings or transferred to institutions.”

The announcements were made individually, at special education meetings scheduled with each set of parents, and came as a complete surprise to everyone.

One commenter in that story sounded off:

KF Butler is right. But she also shouldn’t be too surprised. Although many public schools are serving students with special needs very well, other parents feel otherwise. They don’t believe their children are getting the education they are “REQUIRED by federal law,” and the ability to change that is extremely difficult particularly for lower-income families.

In discussing federally mandated IEP meetings, which identify a student’s special needs and appropriate educational services, Matthew Ladner noted:

“While parents are included in the identification process (of their children’s special needs), they often defer to school district officials. When school officials assert that a child has a disability and tell the child’s parents that special education services will improve their child’s education, many parents believe that district officials are experts in their fields and have their children’s best interests at heart. Wealthy and knowledgeable parents sometimes employ attorneys and outside evaluators with specialized knowledge of special education law, paperwork, and procedure. However, parents with fewer financial resources rarely benefit from such expertise.”

Indeed, too often those parents have little recourse. That is precisely what is happening in Rankin County. As the Clarion-Ledger story noted, “children will be moved into self-contained settings or transferred to institutions.” Who chose this backup plan, and who will make the decision where to send these children? The district. Because parents were left out of that process, they have no choice but to go along.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. In some states, parents of children with special needs have a safety net: school choice. And rather than closing doors or “moving” children arbitrarily, those states are creating access for students who need different services. Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships Program is just one example:

Other states that offer similar school choice programs for students with special needs include Arizona, Florida, Ohio, and Utah—Ohio even offers a scholarship program designed specifically for students with autism.

Some argue such programs actually drain more funding from public schools when what is really needed is more funding for existing programs serving students with special needs. Not only is the “draining” argument a myth, but even when programs are “fully funded,” some parents still need something different for their children.

Take Diana Oakley, whose son, Nathan, has autism. When living in Douglas County, Colorado, Diana utilized the district’s private school voucher program—the only district-led plan in the nation—to choose a private school for her son. And she made that decision even though the public schools worked well for her two daughters and the Douglas County school district has some of the better-performing public schools in the state.

And if more families had school choice, including through public inter- and intra-district transfer programs, specialized services in public schools would grow—or in Mississippi’s case be saved—as parents direct their children’s funding toward those opportunities.

Aside from anecdotal examples, empirical research on school choice programs also has been encouraging. According to a study of Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program:

“…[P]articipants in Florida’s McKay voucher program were surveyed to see how likely they were to get services in their private school relative to their previous public school. Only 30.2 percent of voucher participants said they received all services required under federal law from their public school, whereas 86 percent reported their choice school provided all the services they promised to provide. Moreover, 47 percent of participants were bothered often (by other students) and 25 percent were physically assaulted (by other students) at their previous public schools because of their disabilities, compared to 5 percent bothered often and 6 percent assaulted in their choice schools. Finally, more than 90 percent of former McKay participants who have left the program said the McKay program should continue to be available for those who wish to use it.

In addition, another large survey found “almost 90 percent of McKay respondents…were satisfied or very satisfied with the school their child attends, whereas only 71.4 percent of public school respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the school their child attends.”

This year Mississippi was on its way toward empowering parents of children with special needs to access more educational options. Sadly, that program did not come to fruition, even though there was ample demand among parents.

Maybe the fact that “EVERY child” with special needs is not receiving the education he or she deserves may spark reconsideration of greater school choice in Mississippi. That will enable parents to decide where their children should be moved and whether educational institutions and services, like Rankin County’s specialized classrooms for students with special needs, should stay open.