Now More Than Ever for School Choice

With all the news about Russia trying to influence the election (it did), Trump-Russia “collusion” (doesn’t appear so), Obama Administration surveillance of the Trump team (looks like they did), and the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch (probably a filibuster and then the “nuclear option”), we can be excused for missing a major decision by the Supreme Court announced recently.

Yet the unanimous decision by the court in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District is bound to have massive implications for public schools nationwide, and will certainly inform the School Choice debate both nationally and in the Virginia Governor’s race this November. My preferred candidate in that race, Ed Gillespie, has come out in favor of choice, and his Democratic opponent is sure to be against it.

The case centers on what level of resources public schools need to dedicate to the education of special needs children. The plaintiffs in the case, the parents of a special needs child, argued that the school district had to provide enough resources to make a meaningful impact on the child’s educational progress, even if that meant paying private school tuition if the public school was unequipped to truly help the child (in this particular case, $70,000 per year). The school district argued that, no, the law — the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA) — only required that they pay enough to provide access to an education, a standard described often as either “the bare minimum” or “merely more than de minimis.”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents, with Chief Justice Roberts writing that an “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of [the students] circumstances” because the law required that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives” and the de minimis standard meant that the child would, in effect, not “have been offered an education at all.” The decision cites the law, which requires states to offer instruction “specially designed” to meet a child’s “unique needs” through an “[i]ndividualized education program.”

This case has huge implications for public school districts already struggling with ever-rising costs. It means, in effect, that the Individual Education Plan (IEP) of every special needs child must specifically address the needs of that child in a way that leads to real educational progress, regardless, some might argue, of the cost.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was pilloried during her confirmation hearings for supposedly not knowing what the IDEA law was. An alternate theory, which I tend to believe, is that she knew exactly what it was, that there was a pending Supreme Court case about it, and that she preferred not to get into the implications of potential decisions during her contentious hearings, lest that lead to more controversy and potentially derail her nomination. I cannot confirm that, but it certainly makes sense given the seismic implications on public education, and school choice, that this decision is sure to have.

Anti-School Choice advocates include the regular suspects, namely those protecting the status quo and union/association leaders who are protecting the public schools from competition. That group, however, also includes parents of special needs children who are terrified that a standard value “voucher” from the school budget applied to each child (i.e. the concept of “the money follows the child”) could never cover the special educational needs, and increased costs, associated with their child’s education in comparison to other students without special needs. If for example, the plaintiffs were to have been given a $15,000 voucher, they probably could not have afforded a school like the one they chose for their child, as that would have meant an out-of-pocket expenditure of $55,000 per year.

Parents of special needs children are some of the most dedicated and caring people on the earth and their valid concerns must be addressed -– and now the law demands that they be. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that those concerns can ever be addressed by a public school system essentially built on the idea of mass, one-size-fits-all, education. Imagine the cost associated with a public school that must do whatever it takes, and spend whatever it takes, to provide for the widely varied needs of all the special needs children in that school’s community. What we used to call “special education” is special because it is highly tailored to the needs of children for whom a standard education will not work.

It is informative to note that the parents in this case sued to recover the cost of tuition at a specialty, and private, school. They chose that school because it was only there that their child could receive the tailored educational experience required for him to make meaningful progress. The public schools could not provide that tailored experience, so the parents “chose” another school that met their child’s needs, just as all parents who support school choice wish to do for their children.

School Choice advocates would be wise to jump on this decision as an alarm bell in favor of choice, and not fight against it. A conservative’s knee-jerk reaction is likely to be, “Oh my, how the heck are we going to pay for this?!”

Better would be an exploration of how school choice, with its ability to provide options, is best suited to meeting the intent, as supported by the court, of IDEA, namely that every child receives a quality and meaningful education. Instead of sticking with the current system and trying to wedge every child into a public school now required to provide a nearly infinite number of educational programs for every student regardless of cost (which is, to be honest, impractical and possibly impossible), would it not be better to expand the choices available through the market, providing funding for students based on their needs, instead of a one-price voucher or standard program at a public school?

If the law of the land is truly what the court has said, unanimously, then school choice is likely required for some students, and clearly is the only affordable and practicable answer. It would be a shame if advocates missed this opportunity, because of short-sighted fiscal panic, to make the case for expanded choice and market incentives that will tailor experiences while controlling costs.

All children deserve an education that meets their needs. Congress said so via IDEA, and the Supreme Court agreed. The public schools are good for a great many of our children, including some with special needs, and should continue to be supported. For those whose educational needs, whether “special” or just different, are not consistent with what is available in the public schools, however, more appropriate and tailored programs must be provided, complete with adequate funding. Sadly, we are likely to fail to provide these choices, or be able to afford to do so, if we attempt to make every public school into an infinitely adaptable institution. Taxpayers and parents would be wise to seek out a better way. School Choice, with adjustable voucher values based on specific and validated educational needs and the power of the market, at least has the potential to be the solution.

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