Lake & Tuchman: Disability Rights Advocates Are Fighting the Wrong Fight on School Choice

Many respected national groups have recently set their sights on school choice as the new battlefront for disability rights. They are anywhere from open to highly skeptical to adamantly opposed to charter schools and private school choice, often aligning with teachers unions to try to block new proposals or to re-regulate existing policies.

This opposition makes sense in many ways. Schools of choice, to varying degrees, are free of the hard-won regulations that these groups fought for over the past two decades: the right to access to, and inclusion in, general education classrooms, rather than isolated institutional settings; and the right to a defined set of supports and services to help students with special needs succeed in school.

Indeed, there are good reasons to be alert to issues like counseling out, disproportionate or inappropriate school discipline, and denial of services in public charter schools, which are required to comply with the same federal and state protections as district-run public schools. And when it comes to vouchers, education savings accounts (ESAs), and other forms of private school choice, the issues get more complex around student rights and school responsibilities.

But though their hearts are in the right place, the advocates have the wrong target in their sights. They are too often inadvertently working against the very policies that can open up new possibilities for innovation and quality, and empower parents to make decisions about their children’s unique needs.

Families of students with special needs have certainly benefited from the fights of the past. But they also know that processes and protections like Individual Education Programs (IEPs), school-provided therapies, and the right to sue for more appropriate placements are not enough. Too many families find themselves expending huge sums on lawyers and moving to different neighborhoods or school districts to find a good fit and proper services.

I (Robin) was lucky: I had the financial means to move and a deep knowledge of the system that helped me fight to get my son into a school where he thrived. Those without the financial means to sue or move or leave their current system are simply faced with fighting against a massive bureaucracy that responds only to the loudest and most powerful voices. What disability groups must acknowledge is that the fight for rights is meaningless when parents have no real choices or power.

In many cities, students with unique needs have no substantive educational choices. They attend their neighborhood school, or the district places them in a school with a program for their specific disability. Families have some say through the IEP team, but the power dynamic at meetings, particularly for disadvantaged families, results in most decisions being made by school personnel.

School choice can change this power dynamic. In the charter context, rather than constantly fighting to make the school fit their child, parents can choose a school already designed to be a good fit. Parents can choose a school that they believe is the right academic match and culture rather than fighting the district to layer services and supports to make the neighborhood school work. In the case of an ESA, parents can craft a curriculum and a set of services individualized to their child’s unique needs rather than trying to find one school that offers that package.

The challenge still lies in how we make all forms of schools offer the necessary protections for students with special needs, but the traditional answers are insufficient. The IEP, which documents the goals the student will achieve and the supports and services he or she will receive in order to do so, is the essence of the compliance culture and inefficiency in special education. Private schools show no desire to embrace the IEP and all the bureaucracy it entails. And charter schools are often at war with the rigidness it forces upon them.

Rather than expending effort to fight school choice, we need to focus on fighting for policies that will make choice work well for students with special needs. We need to counter overt discrimination, pushing out, or counseling out. We need to develop policies, such as unified enrollment systems, and mobilize advocacy groups, like DC School Reform Now, to ensure that families get the information and support they need to choose the right school for their child.

Schools of choice, with their autonomy and incentives to demonstrate outcomes, could lead the way forward on innovation and quality in special education. Advocates should shift their sights and start fighting for policies that open up new possibilities and empower parents to make decisions about their children’s unique needs.

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