There’s really no debate anymore regarding the state of our nation’s public school system. Though there are certainly plenty of students given opportunities each year, by and large, those families who live in poorer districts are often the victims of inequity in terms of services, materials and quality teachers. For low income parents of special needs children, this problem is compounded even further. In a school with class sizes ranging from 30-35 students and more, the quality of individual services is lacking and the attention that special needs children receive is far below what is prescribed. Individual Education Plans (or IEPs), though well-intentioned, cannot be carried out to their optimal levels in many low-income districts. Parents, struggling to get by day-to-day, cannot afford an alternative. This causes the parents, the students, their classmates, and the teachers to suffer. However, a new report out from the Alliance for School Choice has shown that for at least 30,000 special needs students in America, the choice to attend alternative public and private schools more suitable to their needs has become a very real possibility. In “The Promise of Special Needs Scholarships,” programs in eight states are highlighted through the stories of children and their parents whose lives have been changed through a range of options provided by the government and private individuals. The Importance of School Choice Anyone in the special needs community understands the immense struggles that parents, teachers and auxiliary staff face when a child cannot receive the services necessary to thrive in a public school. Whether suffering from physical ailments such as cerebral palsy or learning and cognitive impairments like non-verbal autism, auditory processing disorders and dyslexia, children with special needs who cannot receive proper accommodations can suffer even further as their self-esteem is eroded. Oftentimes these children will act out, causing general classroom disruption, and their parents will feel compelled to keep them out of school to “give the teacher a break,” as one Arizona mother describes. Either way, the instruction and improvements allotted to this child suffer as do all those associated with him. Seeing the struggles that parents, teachers, and students face, eight states have developed a host of different programs designed to provide funds to transfer these students to schools that are better equipped to deal with their needs. In Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Utah, these options range from tax credits to tuition and service scholarships. The Different Programs Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities is by far the most widely-used program (accounting for nearly 23,000 of the 30,000 students served) and it is also the oldest (established in 1999). But since the founding of the McKay Scholarship, the number of similarly available services has grown each year, in part because of parent and teacher-advocates that have lobbied for the right to choose the school best suited to their students’ needs. The report shares a story from each state’s program, and gives information on their qualifications and endowment. Though factually-based, the report also helps readers to understand the human side of special needs school choice. The story of Lexie’s Law in Arizona, for example, shows the power of a parent to enact change in her state and help not only her own child, but hundreds of others. About The Alliance for School Choice The Alliance for School Choice is a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group dedicated to granting low-income families access to the education they feel is best suited to their children. Reports such as “The Promise of Special Needs Scholarships” display the success of such programs on the individual and national level and are a powerful tool in helping to enact change in your own district and state. Though only eight states currently offer special needs voucher programs, legislation in on the books in eleven others including New York, Texas, Oregon, and Wisconsin. To find out more, read the full report here.
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