Choice for All Must Include Special-Needs Students

Teacher helps student Melanie Stetson Freeman—The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

It seems like schools are always strapped for resources. They’re being asked to do more with less. The result: We get a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching that actually doesn’t fit most students at all, especially not the ones I work with.

As a special education attorney, I help families, educators, and the students they represent get what they need from the schools they attend so that they can grow into adults with full, productive, and included lives. Every student I work with has a unique combination of strengths, interests and needs. Using the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), I help schools tailor programs and get accommodations that help students with disabilities learn and thrive.

Yet I recognize the need for more flexibility, innovation and options, and I believe that school choice is needed in our education system today. That is why I spend a lot of time and energy trying to clear the hurdles that prevent all students from being able to have access to quality schools and options that meet their needs.

Too Often, School Choice Is ‘Only Illusory’ for Students with Special Needs

As a graduate of middle and high school magnet arts programs, my own son has benefitted from options within public schools. We faced struggles at times because he is a twice-exceptional student who presented challenges for his teachers: He’s intellectually gifted, but also struggles with disabilities. Thanks to my years of experience representing students in districts across Florida, I was able to help secure his place in an ideal school for his needs.

I am not sure what we would have done if he were forced to go through school in a regular model that did not let him follow his passion and develop his talents.  The arts gave him confidence to push through the other classes and develop the skills that he found more challenging.

When my clients get frustrated with limitations within their neighborhood schools and want to pursue other options that may be a better fit for their children, I understand their needs. However, I find too often that school choice is only illusory for many of my clients. At least in our state, the system allows charter schools, private schools that accept vouchers, and even some public magnet schools to deny admission to students who will be difficult to educate, to easily dismiss them once they are there, and to fail to provide services and accommodations essential to those students’ success.

My response to these hurdles is not to summarily reject and call for the elimination of publicly-funded school choice programs. Instead, I want to illuminate the problems I see repeatedly and work with parents, education professionals, and policymakers to develop pragmatic solutions.

I recognize that laws currently in place federally and in Florida have safeguards intended to prevent magnet and charter schools from neglecting their obligations to children with special needs. Current law states that schools provide accommodations and appropriate educational services for children who need them. Current law is also intended to prevent magnet and charter schools from ejecting students that they should be capable of educating. Unfortunately, I frequently see lapses in the enforcement of those laws. Those lapses need to be addressed.

Here in Florida, private schools that accept taxpayer funds under state scholarship or voucher programs are not fully covered by those laws. This means families who avail themselves of school choice lose protections, a fact that many do not realize until after they have moved their child.

Florida Lawmakers Must Ensure Choice Works for Special-Needs Students

The Florida Legislature is currently in session and is considering several bills to expand public funding of private schools. These bills do not address the plight of students with disabilities—or other students, such as English Language Learners, students living in poverty, or non-disabled students who have experienced serious emotional trauma–whose circumstances make them more difficult to educate—who are frequently left with only traditional public schools as their option.

Many of these students cost more to properly educate, yet every day the budgets of public schools continue to decrease as more funding is designated for voucher and scholarship programs. This makes it harder for the public schools to meet their requirement to successfully educate the students with the most intensive needs and prepare them to live as independently and productively as possible. We need to do serious work to address this issue.

We need to incorporate provisions in school choice bills to protect students from discrimination and make privately-run schools fully accountable for provide the services and accommodations necessary for all students to learn. I believe that all schools supported by taxpayer funds should have to follow federal law, state anti-bullying provisions and related laws. To make this feasible, we need to fully fund legal mandates, such as the IDEA, so that schools are better able to serve diverse student populations.

We also need to strengthen enforcement of the laws when dealing with charter schools, as many of them send students back to their home schools with the school districts’ blessing rather than finding solutions and providing programming that would allow the students to be successful. Only by addressing these issues head-on will we truly make choice available to all students.

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