Schools Should Be Cathedrals

The battle to keep federal funds going to public schools just got another advocate. An advocate that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was trying to use as a poster child for her fixation on spreading public money even thinner by offering federal vouchers to private schools. The family in question here would, on the surface, be one siding with Sec. DeVos, but when she took to the mic and used them as an example of how well her misguided proposal could work, they pushed back saying she did not have their permission (she didn’t use names, but left little doubt) and that they do not agree with her assessment.

The gist is that the son is one of millions who suffer from some type of learning disability. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has been in effect since 1975. It was modified in 1990, 1997, and 2004 to address equal access to education for all students.  It currently reads that any student with learning or physical disabilities must have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that creates a program to effect “appropriate progress.” This is far from “best possible” progress but it is in force and what families with an IEP rely on for legal recourse against public schools if there are problems with what is prescribed.

The family in question had just such issues and put up a good fight against the public system. But, eventually decided on a course of action for their son sending him to a private school that specializes in his disability. Ms. DeVos took this story as one that she could use to advocate for getting the family some relief with a voucher toward the tuition. As it turns out, the family does not agree with vouchers to private schools on several levels. First school vouchers are, or would be if adopted in more states, mostly between $2,000 and $7,000 a year. Some states would offer a bit more, but the private school in question has a yearly tuition of $70,000. This is not an unusual amount for any type of private school. Even a $10,000 voucher would be a drop in the bucket. For the case in question, the family gets about half paid by their health insurance and, with everyone in the family working, they manage to pay the other half out-of-pocket. Many families would simply not be able to take advantage of any voucher, leaving the wealthy as the only winners in any federal voucher program.

The other, and more important point is that the family did not want a voucher. They did not want to go to a private school. They wanted to keep their child in their local, public school where he could be surrounded by his friends and community support groups. They wanted him to be part of the school community, not travel for a half hour each way across town. Their issue was one of trying to force the system to provide the “best possible” progress for their son, not simply the “appropriate progress” that the law suggests. They wanted to work within and challenge the system to be better, which is an admirable position to take. They ultimately could not get the services for their son to satisfy their family needs and felt compelled to settle for another, less compelling choice–private school.

One of the severe drawbacks with sending students with disabilities to private schools is that families lose whatever teeth IDEA has. Private schools are not bound to provide “appropriate progress” plans for students. Indeed, they are not even compelled to offer any type of IEP. If the private school specializes in one or another disability, then parents could expect a focused curriculum. But, by signing on to private education, they sign away their rights.

When the family found Sec. DeVos using them as an example of how vouchers could have saved them, they spoke up. Their view is that the limited federal funds going to education should not be spread any thinner by offering vouchers for private education. The money should be concentrated on making public education better.

Nearly 20% of all U.S. citizens attend schools (56 million children) and 91% of those attend public schools. The amount of money spent on educating one fifth of the population is lacking. We should consider education a silver bullet for national problem solving and schools should be cathedrals as suggested by Sam Seaborn, Rob Lowe’s character on “The West Wing”.

Before we make any decision to water down our public-school funding by allowing vouchers, and before we make any decision to void the Every Student Succeeds Act from 2015, as Sec. DeVos is proposing simply because it is associated with Barack Obama, we need to know that doing so would also void the Students with Disabilities Act, leaving those families with no legal recourse to advocate for their children, just as if they had sent them to a private school with a voucher that covers less than 10% of tuition.

Problems in education? Certainly. But, the entire program advocated by this current Department of Education is wholly lacking. We need to advocate to keep public monies funneled into one pot and used with the strength of numbers to better every child’s education.


  1. Jayne Weaver says:

    I would like to respond from experience with our grandson who has autism. He is high-functioning with some complicated behavioral problems brought on by anxiety. His parents struggled for years to get public school staff to educate him, rather than punish him. Much of what public schools do for children identified as special education students is limited by limited dollars and therefore limited resources. For instance, para-professionals frequently assigned to these students are untrained and have limited knowledge about a student’s needs. Autism in particular is complicated for a typical person to understand. No two children should be placed in a box anyhow, but especially no child with autism. It requires a person to think similarly to a detective, able to think outside the box and find a clue to what may be influencing a behavior. Looking for a more understanding environment his parents eventually moved to Colorado seeking a private school that would supposedly have more knowledge of a child with autism. This school was extremely expensive and required the whole extended family’s financial support to enable my grandson to attend. It turns out that this school only wanted to have extremely intelligent young people with autism, minus behavioral difficulties. He was terminated in the middle of his second year, and no alternatives were offered. The family and my grandson were devastated and lost about what to do. The stress was unbelievable! There were no laws to offer protection to him at the private school. Private schools can pick and choose who they want and terminate at will, no matter the consequences. It is a mistake to support private schools, thus limiting even more the resources so needed by a majority of public school children including those whose disability keeps them from being seen as a typically developing child, but also does not mean they are a child with numerous impairments.

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