5 Important FAQs About Special-Needs Education

Education is a complex topic for parents of kids with special needs. For most of us, it's not so simple as blithely sending our children to the closest public school.

We worry—a lot—over many questions. Is my child getting enough support? Would he or she do better at a different school? What type of curriculum should my child use? Is his or her IEP (Individual Education Plan) being enacted on a daily level?

I live in Milwaukee, a city that's famous for having the oldest low-income school voucher program in the nation, but this doesn't mean I get a voucher for my son Liam, who has autism.

In fact, as he's facing a transition away from the inclusive preschool he's attended for the last four years, I worry about where to send him next. Because of the level of individual support Liam needs, public school isn't an option; and, I can't afford private school tuition with a parent-paid aide either (about $40,000 a year).

I wish that we had a school choice program in Wisconsin for kids with special needs, and I've been researching these programs for a long time. There's a lot of information out there, and did some research to answer the five biggest questions I had, and here's what I found out.

What exactly is school choice?

According to the Friedman Foundation, "School choice gives parents the freedom to choose their children's education, while encouraging healthy competition among schools to better serve families' needs. School choice lets parents use the public funds set aside for their children's education to choose the schools—public or private, near or far, religious or secular—that work best for them." For kids with special needs, this basically means that parents can choose to use the public funds allotted for their child to send him or her to a private school, a charter school, an online school, or for homeschool (in some cases).

Where is school choice offered for kids with special needs?

Seven states currently offer special education vouchers, tax credits, or scholarship programs: Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Arizona. Each of the states runs different programs that allow for varying degrees of support for kids with special needs, so it's best to use the embedded links to research programs in a specific state.

What are some objections to school choice for kids with special needs?

Much has been written about the possible negatives for kids with special needs using school choice programs (see pages 1-3 of this newsletter). The biggest objections center around kids losing IDEA protections, like like the right to free school transportation; the focus on academics rather than vocational training; and the fact that private schools are not legally required to provide special education and disability-related services. Opponents also argue that many families can't handle the level of parental involvement school choice requires. Many of these objections, however, don't stand up to empirical research, and the Friedman Foundation reports that most kids with special needs who use school choice programs to enter into a private school are thriving.

Are there any school choice success stories?

A former French teacher in the Arizona public schools, Lindsay Vasquez, and her husband, Raymond (also a public school teacher), decided to pull their 7-year-old son Tristyn (pictured above), who has autism, out of public school after a disastrous kindergarten year. Under Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), they've used Tristyn's public funds to enroll him in a private, accredited online homeschool program.

Lindsay says, "My son does really well 1:1. He also loves computers! He can sit for a preferred subject like math for an hour if necessary. We've been learning second grade content via online for a year and a half. He attends to the animation, the short video clips, the Brain Pop videos, the audio stories, talking with his peers and teacher, and the flexibility of his school schedule. He can work on a lesson for 10-15 minutes and still take sensory breaks(be it jumping jacks, deep pressure, 5 minutes on his iPad, etc.). This year, he is sitting for longer periods of time, taking more of an interest in the stories, recording his voice while reading, and answering comprehension questions)."

After tuition, the Vasquez's still have a bit of extra money from the ESA, and this pays for extra speech and occupational therapy sessions, swimming lessons, and therapeutic horseback riding. Although this school choice has required some financial sacrifices -- Lindsay's now staying at home and racking up miles on the family car as she transports Tristyn to different therapies. But for them, school choice has been worth it.

What can you do if your state doesn't offer a school choice program?

I asked my friend Dani Rossa, mom to two girls with autism who's been fighting to for a Special Needs Scholarship here in Wisconsin for a long time, for advice. Like Lindsay Vasquez, Dani pulled her girls out of public school because they weren't getting the support they needed, and their IEP's were not being followed. Dani sends her girls to a local private school with ABA support staff, and although it's expensive, she's reports tremendous gains. She says, "I was lucky to find a school who was willing to embrace my children and any support staff I wanted to bring in. My girls now have complete consistency between their home and school environments, and their programming is completely individualized to their needs. Any problems that arise are dealt with immediately, and the girls are being supported in all social situations as well (something I could never get written in their IEP at school). They are thriving socially and making steady gains in all areas of academics."

So, what am I going to do about Liam's education? Get a second job and send him to a private school here in Wisconsin? Move to a state with school choice? Homeschool him? I'm not sure yet, but I'm grateful to at least have more information at hand to make some important decisions about his academic future.

We'd love to hear more from you about the school choice debate -- what sorts of schools are working for your kids, and what other questions you have about educating your child with special needs.

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter (@jamiepacton)

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