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
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.