Special education is very complicated. Time intensive and specialized instruction, facility modification, specially tailored curriculum and assessment, specialized transportation and a virtual minefield of state and nation regulation make special needs education an expensive and frustrating endeavor. Sadly, lawmakers in South Carolina don’t seem very interested in improving the situation.
But classroom instruction for uniquely challenged students is vitally important. It can help to foster individual autonomy, practical reasoning skills, a sense of self worth, and provides for meaningful socialization.
Recognizing these important benefits, federal lawmakers passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) which specifically guarantees a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for all disabled students. In practice, this means that parents work with public educators to develop and implement an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) tailored to the specific needs of each child.
Because traditional public school classrooms and curriculum are designed as a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction, children with unique needs often require extensive supplementary instruction. The need for student assistants, separate curriculum, and classroom modifications often lead public school officials to place special needs students in private schools. These children attend independent schools, focused on special needs instruction, but are classified as public school students because the state pays their tuition. Not only do the children enjoy better and more specialized instruction, school districts also save thousands of dollars by contracting services to those who are more uniquely qualified to provide them.
Though federal law requires disabled children receive a publicly financed education, and allows children to attend private schools to meet this goal, this is not a decision left to parents. This important decision is made by public school employees and education bureaucrats. Sometimes parents luck out and have the chance to place their children in effective and dedicated special needs private schools. More often they don’t. Like all government policies that depend on the whims of bureaucrats, identifying any type of logical pattern to these decisions is difficult.
However, five states have taken the highly acclaimed model of special needs private school placement, and extended the decision making process to include parents of the disabled children. Rather than having to accept the mandates of bureaucrats, parents can apply for support directly from the state in the form of scholarships or tax credits. Not only do the children receive access to uniquely appropriate instruction, the state and local district saves thousands of tax dollars because federal and local funding streams are rarely tied directly to the individual student.
Successful examples of statewide special needs scholarship programs include:
Florida: “McKay” Scholarships
Ohio: “Autism Scholarship” Program
Utah: “Carson Smith” Special Needs Scholarships
Arizona: “Pupils with Disabilities” Scholarship Program
Georgia: “Special Needs” Scholarships
These programs continue to receive glowing reviews. Research indicates that participating parents are more satisfied than parents of children who remain in traditional public schools. Additionally, parents report being offered higher quality services outside the public school system when using the scholarships. There are also measurable achievement gains among the participating students in private schools when compared with their peers in traditional public school setting.
As usual, certain politicians in South Carolina seem oblivious (or simply indifferent) to the success of these scholarships. In April, a committee of state lawmakers narrowly rejected sending a scholarship proposal for an up-or-down vote in General Assembly. Representatives Denny Woodall Neilson, Herb Kirsh Brian White would not allow the bill to receive the open floor discussion that such a education improving and money saving plan certainly deserves.
Contact your lawmaker. Let them know that denying choices to parents of special needs children is unjust. It wastes tax dollars and stifles opportunity for some our state’s most underprivileged students. South Carolina can, and should, do better.