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School choice just fantasy for special needs families


The promise of parental choice in education is a profound lie and it is particularly galling to parents of children with special needs who are exhausted from fighting for our kids. In the half dozen years I have been trying to find a suitable education for my own child in Arizona, I have realized that legislators, lobbyists and (sometimes paid) activist-parents play on the fears we have for our children’s futures – and they are selling us snake oil.

My son has special needs, and three years ago, I withdrew him from public school and enrolled in the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Perversly, I’m the one who got an education. I’ve learned that parental school choice is a fantasy. Facebook groups, created by some ESA parents, are ostensibly sources of information for current and prospective ESA parents but in reality serve as vehicles for expansionist propaganda. I

Pamela Lang

Pamela Lang

myself was excluded from the most prominent one after posting my support for public education. In these closed groups, ESA-promoting administrators advise members on creative ways to game the system, to qualify more and more kids for ESA without limit, and how to navigate around the rules, but what they don’t tell you is that many families won’t find schools willing to take your disabled child, even if your child qualifies for top tier funding.

Setting aside questions of parental infallibility, financial ethics, and state-funded religious education, in Arizona, schools are really the ones who choose, not parents. Definitely not parents of kids with disabilities.

My son’s diagnosis qualified him for top tier funding – nearly $40,000 annually, enough for a full ride at almost any private school in Phoenix. But none of our “choices” wanted us. A highly rated private secular school, now in Paradise Valley, declined because my son needed more academic support than they offered (and at the time they marketed to the special-ed population). An esteemed secular day school in Phoenix wouldn’t even see us after viewing his file, which I was required to send before they would have us on campus. A prep school in North Scottsdale, owned by a leading speech therapist, said, “We’re not for you.” And religious schools? A Jesuit school in Phoenix, Catholic schools in Ahwatukee, Chandler, and even North Phoenix, all adamantly refused to yield to my desperate pleas. One catholic school in South Scottsdale barely let us in the front door. In fact, after being unable to reach the appropriate person to even schedule a meeting, I stopped in unannounced at the moment a public tour was about to commence. They would not let my son and I join it.

A popular Christian school in Tempe/Chandler used to have a reputation for accepting students with special needs but a new administration told me they put an end to this inclusive policy. The famous chain of schools that boast holistic, child-led learning? Hell no. As a parent, I never wanted to leave the public school system, but open enrollment in public districts does not exist for special needs students because they are always at capacity with their local population. Charter schools technically have to take any child, but they easily get around this by hinting to parents that their child’s needs will not be accommodated if they enroll.

Moreover, choosing private school means signing away your child’s right to federal anti-discrimination protections. There are no reliable or consistent standards. Private schools can and do reject or remove a child for any reason, any time. For large parts of the last three years on ESA, my 12-year old son has sat at home because I couldn’t find a willing school. No one mentions this when they glorify ESA and “school choice.”

The ESA expansion lobby promises school choice for all, ignoring the very definition of public education. We already have an education system that provides access to all children; the extent to which it fails our kids today is by design. Not all issues in public education are directly related to funding, but many could be cured with more money. Privatizers deny this but reality proves them wrong. Schools need adequate funding to serve all the students they are required to enroll. The assault on public education hurts all kids, but students like my son are disproportionately harmed.

The privatization agenda also fosters artificial antagonism between parents and pits Arizonans against each other because everyone has to scramble to save their own kid in a universally-underfunded education system. If school choice proponents truly care about kids, they will mandate that charter schools and private schools taking ESA funding accept students with special needs and follow recommended educational plans in accordance with federal law. Then maybe families like mine can get a little closer to having a choice.

Pamela Lang is a Phoenix Realtor and mother to a young son with disabilities.

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  1. As a parent using ESA, I see several misleading statements in this piece. But my main concern is, I’m not sure why ESA is at fault- it’s the private schools who will not take her child. Based on his Personal records. I agree AZ gets a big fat F when it comes to providing special needs kids with an education. But I’m not sure why bashing ESA, which works for many such as myself, has anything to do with it. No program will be perfect for every child- isn’t that the problem w/ public schools in the first place? And while I agree it’s not fair that we Need ESA as an option, and the state ought to Do Their Job and educate my child, the fact is I wouldn’t be able to homeschool my son w/ the resources I can with ESA. Without it, he’d be worse off. I’m sorry that it doesn’t work for her son, but that doesn’t mean she needs to promote taking it away from mine.

  2. Well said, De Taylor.

    Ms Lang, I’ve personally witnessed how ESA has benefited children with Disabilities, children on Native reservations, children in failing schools, and children of Military families. It’s a great program that has helped many different children with many different needs. But, I can also see how it is difficult for some family’s to navigate when they have children with severe, multiple disabilities. I bring this up because I also have a child that qualifies for the highest amount allotted ($40,000) due to her multiple & severe disabilities…. after she was neglected and abused in Arizona’s public school district.

    My only complaint with the ESA program is a personal one to my family”s specific situation, as that the State approved my daughter ESA award late, after the 4th quarter started, not giving me time to find secure the best education solution. That, in addition to the fact that the state never sent me the debit card, which caused me to have nothing to report on my initial quarterly statement in the 4th quarter of 2019. I’m thankful we have DDD to fill the void where public schools failed and ESA was late to the game… but we will give ESA another go this Spring.

    I hope you can find the right fit for your son. Perhaps DDD can be of help. But please don’t give up on ESA, as it really is a great program.

  3. BlessedToBeHerMom

    I would love to know which private schools excluded Miss Lang’s child and treated them both so heinously. I certainly wouldn’t want my kiddo attending any of her “top-choices”…

    I don’t understand why this article is bashing a program that is helping so many special needs families yet doesn’t name a single one of the private institutions that supposedly failed her. Would love to see them named and hear from them regarding their enrollment practices.

    I certainly understand why this mom would like to see charter schools and private schools held to a higher standard – I do as well. I also wouldn’t want my kiddo at a school where she is not wanted and welcomed with open arms. A school that excluded my differently-abled child or Miss Lang’s would never be on my top-choice list.

  4. What a concise and accurate description of the situation exhausted parents of special needs kids face. I too would prefer a fully funded public school in my neighborhood that would provide the services my child needs. Or even an option of a charter school that would provide services, but these are not options because both kinds of public schools discovered they can push out the special needs kids or make life hellish until they leave. From the first phone call to a private school, the parent can see it’s all about following the rules or even the whims of the people running the for profit private schools. Egos must be stroked and no one dares question unprofessional or questionable practices because reminders of the wait list and how lucky you are your kid was selected are ever present. Even the private schools that are doing OK for special needs kids are often quite new at this and facing a steep learning curve. It seems that the parents able to customize therapies and run their kid around town are the ones getting help for their kids. I’ve read Ms Lang’s article repeatedly and can not see where she is in any way advocating the end of the ESA or to take it away from anyone. But it’s clear she is very brave to just speak her truth here based on the response article and even the tone of comments here. The “choice” to school your special needs child really is a fantasy. The reality is a stressful, painful labor of love and I appreciate this article for speaking out. Now people in my life can see my family is not the only one in a state of disbelief over how difficult it is to secure an adequate education for a special needs kid.

  5. I’m so happy so find this article and know that we aren’t the only family having this problem. I could’ve written this article -it is that accurate. Thank you for being brave enough to write this.

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Arizona’s politics is so divisive that families tiptoe around the subject until they barely speak, old friends don’t connect because discussing what is going on in the world is off the table for comment, neighbors are careful not to say the word Republican or Democrat, and new acquaintances are welcome if they have your same political philosophy.