Why Deny D.C. Children What Special-Needs Students Get?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

THE SUPREME COURT will hear arguments today about the use of public money for the private schooling of children with special needs. It's interesting to note what's not at issue: namely, that when a public school system is unable to provide an appropriate education, it is obligated to pay the costs of private school. Too bad poor children don't have that unassailable right; if they did, there would be no controversy about the District program that gives vouchers to low-income children to attend private schools.

The case to be heard by the court, Forest Grove v. T.A., hinges on whether parents have to enroll a child with special needs in public school before the child can attend private school at public expense. Special-education advocates say students shouldn't have to waste time before being placed in a setting that best suits their needs, while school boards worry about a ruling that could amount to an unfettered right to private schooling at public expense. What strikes us about the emotionally charged debate is the acceptance by both sides that sometimes it is appropriate to use public money to pay for a child go to a private school. So, why all the hullabaloo about the approximately $14 million for a federally funded voucher program that lets 1,700 D.C. students attend private schools instead of failing public schools?

To hear critics of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program tell it, the use of public money for private schooling is as unprecedented as it is undesirable. But, as education think tank founder Andrew J. Rotherham recently wrote on his Eduwonk blog, "Public funds and private schools are plenty entangled now and the idea of bright lines is a rhetorical fiction." In addition to the billions of dollars spent annually on private school tuitions for students with disabilities, he noted, private schools get public money for books, technology, teacher training and Title I services. As long as the money is seen as benefiting the child, it is deemed a proper, even desirable, use of public dollars.

Don't get us wrong. We're not arguing for the unilateral right of parents to enroll their sons and daughters in any school they wish with the taxpayer picking up the tab. Abuse of special-education provisions has contributed to escalating costs that threaten to take needed money from general public education funds. Safeguards are needed. Public schools should be pressed to do a better job for students with disabilities and students without. But there are schools in Washington where statistics show that failure is almost guaranteed. If a school system can't educate a child -- whether because of acute special needs or its own historical failings -- why should that child not have options for a "free appropriate public education"?

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