What Does School Choice Look Like for Students with Disabilities?

A box of crayonsAll the attention — and destruction — Hurricane Irma has brought the state of Florida this past week got me thinking about all the kids who have had to have there brand new school year disrupted. And that made me think of a story I heard about the experiences two families in Florida who have sons with autism have had with public schools and “school choice” there. I’ve been wanting to blog about that story here ever since I first heard it on NPR.

“Today we’re going to meet two special needs families in Florida,” the story opens. “President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly touted the state as a national model for the expansion of school choice.”

The first Florida family they feature on the radio story has a child named Ayden, who has autism and had meltdowns when he attended a public school. His mother told the reporter that he came home from school one day with injuries from being physically held down. “I was horrified,” she says in the interview. “He was covered in bruises.” NPR reported that St. Lucie Public Schools would not comment for the story, citing privacy.

Aiden’s mother pulled her son out of the public school after that and started searching for a private school instead. From the story:

“Helping kids like Ayden find a better fit is exactly why vouchers for special needs students were created. Ayden is eligible for the McKay, which provides about $11,000 to attend a private school. McKay is the biggest and one of the oldest such programs in the country.”

Sounds good, but while several private schools nearby advertise they take students with autism, Aiden’s mom couldn’t find a school within driving distance that will accept her son. “The minute you call them, they’re like — oh, well, we don’t really have the staff to handle your child.”

Our son Gus has developmental and physical disabilities, and we had good experiences with the public schools he attended when he was younger. A number of other kids with disabilities at the different public schools Gus attended came from families who sent all their other children to private schools. When I naively asked the parents why they didn’t send their special needs child to the same Lutheran or Catholic school the siblings attended, they’d just shrug and point out what, to them, was obvious. Public schools are required by federal law to take every student no matter what. Private schools don’t have to.

The NPR story interviews another family whose son Reed, who has autism, attended a tiny Christian school in Florida until middle school. “The family brought in a therapist for Reed at their own expense and had her train the teachers in following Reed’s behavioral plan,” the reporter explains. “But the school ended after fifth grade, and the family was rejected by several other private schools.”

Reed sings in the choir at the public school he attends now and is making A’s and B’s in mainstream classes. “We’re a regular old comprehensive public school,” Reed’s school principal tells the reporter, noting that means they have an autism specialist on staff.

I hope you’ll give the NPR story a read. It does an excellent job of pointing out what many Americans don’t realize: families have fewer legal protections outside the public schools, starting with the basic right to an education. And given the services some children with special needs require, often a voucher is not enough.


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