What Is ‘School Choice’ for Special-Needs Students?

All parents want the best possible educations for their children.  “School choice” has been embraced by our country as a way to improve educational outcomes.  Parents can now consider:  What schools are available? What will be taught?  Who pays for it?

These questions are daunting enough for the parents of a “normal” kid.  But not all kids are “normal.”

Some are blind or deaf.  Some have learning disabilities, mild or severe.  Some are autistic.  Some have psychiatric disorders.  Some struggle to just stay alive.  If you think a parent’s challenge to get the best education for a “normal” kid is tough, just imagine getting a good education for a special-needs student.

With a special-needs student, the same questions apply.  What schools are available?  What will be taught?  Who will pay for it?  But because special-needs students make up such a small proportion of the population, results may vary.

Let’s not dance around the main issue:  educating special-needs kids is expensive.  School districts who are accustomed to paying $12,000 per student/year tend to freak out when faced with a $70,000 bill for an itinerant special ed teacher who serves only one student.  Plus these students might affect the school’s standardized testing performance.

It raises the age-old question:  Should special-needs students be mainstreamed in public schools with their “normal” peers, or should they be sent to schools with specialized programs and teachers who are better equipped to handle them and their disabilities?

In 1974 Congress passed the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees children with disabilities a public education appropriate to their needs, at no cost to their families, with these provisions:

  • Children with disabilities must be educated with students who do not have disabilities and should attend the school that is closest to home.
  • Children with disabilities must be provided with support services that assist them in benefiting educationally from their instructional program.
  • An assessment must be completed to determine the child’s needs. This may be done only with the parent’s informed written consent.

Parents of special-needs students will pretty much unanimously attest that getting educational services at any acceptable level involves a tremendous battle – my wife and I raised a totally blind son through public schools and can offer personal testimony.  “School Choices” can seem binary to special-needs families.  Will my kid get a real education, or not?  And where:  local public schools, or special school?

Most states still operate resident deaf / blind schools.  And all public school districts are required to provide special-education services.  Now that most states offer public school choices – traditional schools, charter schools, alternative schools, innovation schools, trade- or discipline-specific schools – the situation is all the more confusing for special-needs families.

An often-heard concern about privately-operated charter and innovation schools is that they will not accept or provide appropriate services for special-needs students, despite federal requirements.  The jury is out, but early studies suggest that parents of special-needs students usually choose traditional public schools over charter schools for their students.

The new alternative school models usually run on lighter budgets, and are sometimes rigidly driven by profit.  Will this relegate special-needs students to the traditional public schools, limiting their access to other schools of choice?  On a recent visit to Denver for the Franklin Center’s #AmplifyChoice conference, I was pleased to see that one of the major independent school networks has schools that specialize in services for students with certain disabilities.

Most likely the key element to the successful education of special-needs students will not change in the new “school choice” environment.  Parents who aggressively advocate for their kids will receive good services, and those who don’t, won’t.  Let’s hope that states and districts keep the interests of their special-needs students at heart as school choices evolve.

Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side

Rockin' On the Right SideWhen some loud braggart tries to put me down,
And says his school is great
I tell him right away
“Now what’s the matter buddy
Ain’t you heard of my school?
It’s number one in the state!”

Be True To Your School – the Beach Boys

 

 

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