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Opinion: “School Choice” An Empty Promise for Families of Children with Disabilities

Missouri Senate Bill 727 aims to provide preferential financial treatment for students with disabilities. While commendable, it does not change Missouri law and hereafter require private and charter schools to accept these students with special needs. The debate surrounding school choice, particularly in the context of private schools and charter schools is an empty exercise without discussion of the civil rights of these students that accompanies the distribution of public dollars.

School choice advocates argue that by providing parents and students with options beyond traditional public schools, competition will improve educational standards and diverse learning needs will be addressed. However, a critical examination of the facts reveals an elephant in the room —  the potential for civil rights violations, especially concerning the acceptance and accommodation of students with special educational needs in schools with selective acceptance and retention criteria. Private and charter schools operate under different regulations compared to traditional public schools. While laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandate that public schools serve all students, including those with special needs, private and charter schools often have more leeway in their admissions policies (which is especially concerning for charter schools because they argue they are public schools partially funded by public dollars). This flexibility can and does lead to situations where students requiring special education services are either not accepted or not adequately supported outside of the public school system. This is problematic on its face and raises concerns about equal access to education—a cornerstone of civil rights in the United States.

Families of children with disabilities are tired of the empty promises of a government that pays lip service to funding the education of students with disabilities and schools that treat them as a liability when their test scores jeopardize the stellar performance private and charter schools tout to market themselves as a superior alternative to public schools. Fostering an inclusive educational environment that values diversity and meets the needs of all learners not only aligns with the principles of civil rights, but it also enriches the educational experience for every student. As the conversation around school choice continues, equal access to any education setting that accepts public funding should be at the forefront since it is the cornerstone of a just and inclusive system that serves all students.

Missouri Senate Bill 727 may be well-intentioned, but it nevertheless fails to provide for the promises it makes regarding children with special needs. Instead it places the cart before the horse. Our children with educational disabilities are not for sale. All schools receiving public funds must be held to standards that guarantee access and the provision of appropriate support for students with special needs. Perhaps this could be accomplished through the drafting of stricter regulations for private schools that accept public dollars around admissions and special education services. Regardless of the shape the solution takes, addressing these concerns requires a thoughtful, multifaceted approach.  A scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Let’s ensure our IEP kids have a place to go with the dollars being offered first.