School Choice for Special-Needs Students

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Other children like our son would benefit from having vouchers that increase their options.

The Wall Street Journal

By THOMAS M. CHIAPELAS

My wife, Liz, and I have a 5-year-old son named Sam who, along with his little brother, Pete, is our pride and joy. Sam was diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorder at age 4. The symptoms of ASD vary but are characterized by social deficits and repetitive behavior. His doctor says he is high-functioning, which means that with the right schooling, therapies, teachers and family support Sam could be “mainstreamed” into a regular classroom with his peers in the future.

But getting from here to there is going to take enormous effort, and our local public school has already shown an unwillingness to help. Sam is old enough to attend kindergarten in the fall, but after reading his progress reports and listening to his therapists, Liz and I agreed he was not ready to tackle the added challenges of kindergarten. His language skills are still delayed and he has sensory and social issues that could use another year of work.

Our son was evaluated by the special-education personnel in our public-school district, and we were told he qualified to attend a general education pre-K class for part of the school day and receive therapy in the special-education classroom the other part of the time. We also got him into applied-behavior-analysis (ABA) therapy outside of the school system that was recommended to us by the pediatric neuropsychiatrist who diagnosed him.

So we asked for a meeting with local public-school officials to see if we could keep our son back a year. To our surprise, there were 11 school representatives at the 90-minute meeting, yet not one was qualified to render a decision. We wrote a follow-up letter expressing our disappointment and requested a second meeting.

The second meeting had even more people in attendance and lasted nearly two hours, at the end of which the school administrators said they could not grant Sam an extra year of preschool. Sadly, it was clear to us that pushing him through the system was more important to them than giving him a chance to perform at grade level.

At that point we had no choice but to enroll him in a private, faith-based school where he can repeat his pre-K year and continue an ABA program in the afternoon. We hope this will give Sam the support he needs. This school is aware of his condition and is willing to work with us and our son in conjunction with his ABA therapist to make sure he will be ready for kindergarten.

Thankfully, we could afford to send our son to a nearby private school. But in many families that isn’t an option. For the great majority of children with learning and physical disabilities, the best they can hope for is whatever their local public schools can provide. Too often what is provided is a subpar education that fails to meet the needs of this population. That’s not only unfair, it’s unjust.

That is why, when Americans discuss the need for school choice and vouchers, we should consider students with special needs like our son Sam. Society’s goal should be to give special-needs children their full measure of dignity and opportunity at a school where they can better learn, adapt and thrive. These schools exist, and vouchers can make them more affordable. The schools often are expensive—because it does take more to educate a child with disabilities. But these children, regardless of their parents’ income, deserve a quality education and a chance at life.

A few leaders have pushed back. Jeb Bush is one of them. When he became governor of Florida in the late 1990s he helped to create the state’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. Founded in 1999, the statewide program provides “scholarships for eligible students with disabilities to attend an eligible public or private school of their choice.”

The program is still thriving long after Gov. Bush’s second term ended in 2007, and 28,370 students from 1,248 private schools participated in 2013-14. Students with disabilities ranging from blindness to dyslexia to autism-spectrum disorder received in total more than $180 million in scholarships.

That’s a model that if implemented in more states would help many thousands of kids like our son Sam, and many parents who can’t afford what is often most important in their child’s education: a choice.

Mr. Chiapelas lives in St. Louis.

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