(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
The Florida Education Association has filed suit in an effort to kill SB 850, that included the creation of the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, Florida’s new ESA program. The Goldwater Institute has intervened in the case on behalf of a group of parents enrolled in the new program. During the press conference, a radio reporter asked the parents the following question:
Rick Flagg: This is one for the parents in general, whoever wants to (take it). Your bill was going to pass, regardless. And then the Legislature stuck the corporate voucher provision on there, making this lawsuit inevitable. I’d like to know how you feel about the Legislature doing that to you, and in effect using your kids as pawns in the voucher fight. That’s not for you …
PLSA parent Ashli McCall: I don’t mind being exploited in this manner because I believe in it.
Rick Flagg: Does everyone pretty much agree with that? (Heads nod.) And you’re okay now with them using your kids as the face for this lawsuit? You’re okay with being used as pawns again?
Clint Bolick: I object obviously to the characterization.
Rick Flagg: How would you describe it then?
Clint Bolick: I would describe it as a program that was made part of an omnibus education reform bill. And these parents, are they in jeopardy of losing those opportunities? No question about it. How is that being made a pawn?
I have never met Mr. Flagg, but I assume that he’s a swell guy who loves his momma, waives the flag on the 4th of July and cheers for his favorite sports teams. Flagg may simply have his cynicism cannon pointed in the wrong direction. Perhaps if he knew more about the travails of students with special needs and their parents, he wouldn’t second guess the decision of parents to participate in the program or to defend it in court. If Mr. Flagg had walked in the shoes of parents facing these challenges, it would not seem implausible to him that they might want to participate in a program that provides the opportunity for a truly individualized education plan for their child. It has been, after all, the unfulfilled promise of special education law from the outset.
The following is my distillation of the history of the travails of special education parents and students, as related by a joint project of the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B.. Fordham Foundation. If you want to double-check me read it for yourself here. My summary is as follows:
Back in the early 1970s, a reported 1,000,000 special needs children were denied access to public schools. As in, sorry, we don’t take your kind around here denied access to public schools. The federal government took action to put an end to this discrimination. While the legislation that evolved into today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stands as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, it did not fulfill the promise of an “individual education plan” for every child with a disability. The federal government had promised to pick up 40% of the costs for special education services, but never entirely followed through. Educators complain endlessly about paperwork requirements and bureaucratic procedures. The PPI/FF tome describes the process in-school process for identifying and developing an education plan “an invitation for conflict” between schools and parents. Parents have a right to sue when districts fail to provide an appropriate education (2% of special needs children nationwide attend private schools at public expense either directly or indirectly as a result of this provision) but this is an option far more available to wealthy families due to the cost of specialized services. What started as a system for granting access and providing individual education plans devolved into a system of CYA whereby districts wished to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit and far too many parents were left deeply disaffected. Process became the focus, not outcomes.
Despite the fact that only a tiny minority of special education students have debilitating disabilities precluding academic progress, an attitude of warehousing is not far from the surface among too many people. For instance, a school district official made the following statement to the Arizona Republic in 2011 regarding the state’s grading system and the emphasis on the gains of low-performing students:
“Our concern is that many of those in the lowest 25 percent are special-education students and . . . will probably always have a hard time.”
This prophecy is not only disgusting but falls straight into the self-fulfilling category: kids will automatically face a hard time if the adults in charge of their education don’t believe they can make academic progress. Mind you that like all other public schools, Arizona districts receive additional funds for special needs students, but bristle at the thought of being held to account for the learning progress of those students. One can only draw the inference that they see their role as warehousing special needs children, not educating them. The soft bigotry of low-expectations lives and breathes.
The PLSA parents are not pawns- they are doing what the parents of special needs children have been forced to do for decades: fighting for their children. If the FEA suit prevails, they lose the ability to take control of the education of their child. They have a direct interest in the outcome, and decided not to be a passive “collateral casualty” of the teacher’s union. The less the special education system operates as a “take it or leave it” system for those who cannot afford expensive attorneys the more children we will see reach their potential. Mr. Flagg lives in a state that has made remarkable progress for special needs children in public school while not coincidentally making them all eligible to attend a public or private school of their choice, so let’s avoid any pretense that this is going to hurt the public school system.
So my question for Mr. Flagg is as follows: if you were forced to repeat life as a special needs child, would you want your parents to have an opt-out for you if they found you in a school run by people checking off boxes on a form, unconcerned with your progress, and displaying the attitude expressed above? If not, why would you make yourself a willing pawn-a mere funding unit- of a public school ignoring your needs? Even pawns have the potential to become a queen if not carelessly sacrificed.
If so, welcome to the parental choice movement. All is forgiven.