As the school year is coming to a close and parents are deciding where to send their kids next year, school choice is once again at the forefront of everyone’s minds – especially for families with children who have learning disabilities. Although school choice can be polarizing, I have always been a proponent of it as these options are often necessary for these families who may find that there is not appropriate support for the children in their home school districts. While it is important for students and families to have this option, school choice does not solve the underlying problems that special education faces.
Working in special education for almost two decades, I have seen my fair share of families who have struggled to find programs that meet their child’s specific needs. Their home school districts may have class sizes that are too big so as to not give their teacher adequate time to prioritize their learning, they may not have instructional aids available or even not have any program in place at all.
Few would argue that the best place for a child to be is at a school within their home district – close to their peers, families, community and all the things that are conducive to supporting educational and social growth and development. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government requires that students are educated in the “least restrictive environment,” or LRE, meaning that they should spend as much time as possible with peers who do not receive special education. Most students who have disabilities fall into an LRE that is a self-contained program, which is basically a school within a school. While it is in the student’s best interest to stay in their home school, having appropriate programs in place is crucial.
As the principal of a nonprofit, private special education school, I have seen firsthand how school choice has positively impacted our students. We receive referrals from over 40 school district partners across the Valley to provide an alternative for students with ranging needs – whether physical or developmental disabilities, of varying severities – and every student we have enrolled has their individual needs met with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and a team specifically tailored to helping them succeed.
When we feel that the student is able to return to their home school – and that their school is prepared to support them – we also include customized exit criteria to be certain that they are ready for the transition.
For some students, returning to their home district is not possible due to the level of support they need. Private outplacement schools, like some of the schools we run, offer the most restrictive environment but they take students who have the most intensive needs that not all school districts are able to support. To help bridge the gap, we will work with our district partners to train their team so they are equipped to best serve the student upon his or her return.
Although the services we can provide for our partner districts help to a degree, they do not solve the underlying problem – there needs to be funding to help support these programs in the first place. Our state’s need for funding hasn’t been addressed in 13 years, all but guaranteeing some or most districts do not have adequate resources. This single fact creates the need for the service that our school provides, although learning in a vacuum – in an exclusively special education environment – is not what is best for these students long-term. While there are some options that can help share the financial burden of funding private education, like the Empowerment Scholarship Account, which several of our students benefit from, more needs to be done to increase funding to schools overall to supplement special education.
Special education is a broken system that is being stretched too thin and funding is crucial for the implementation and maintenance of programs that are needed in schools throughout our state. Thanks to people like Kathy Hoffman, superintendent of public instruction, special education funding has gotten some attention recently, but we are still far from fully addressing the challenges of underfunding.
All students – regardless of ability level – deserve to have their learning be supported and their needs be met. More than anything, I want to see all students succeed and I am proud to work for a private institution that supports public education.
— Jon Evans, principal of ACCEL’s Metro Campus, has worked in special education for almost 20 years.