Last month the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving Montgomery County Public Schools that parents must assume the burden of proving that the special-education plan the schools devise for their child is lacking [front page, Nov. 15].
According to federal mandate, each special-education student in a public school must receive an individual education plan to be implemented in the classroom. This plan is meant to be the result of a collaboration among parents, teachers and school psychologists or other specialists.
Special-education professionals are trained to assess a child's special needs in order to provide the most educational and appropriate environment for that child, and in most cases, the individual education plan they devise is beneficial and reflects parental input. But what if parents disagree with the assessment or solution put forth by the school? Recourse is limited.
Few parents have professional training in special education, but they have witnessed their child's development from birth. They have sat in doctors' offices waiting on results, and they have attended therapy and treatment sessions. They have watched their child struggle to meet the milestones met easily by the child's peers. All of this means that parents should be able to decide how public tax money can fund the best education for their child.
But even before the Supreme Court ruling, parents in Maryland and many other states did not have the freedom to choose what they believe to be the best program for their special-needs child unless they could afford tuition at a private school. Funded transfers of public school students to private schools were and are rare in Maryland, even though tuition at a specialized private school is in the ballpark of per-pupil expenditures for special-education students in Montgomery County Public Schools. Usually, parents' only option is to move to a different school district.
Removing a child's disability may be impossible, but finding the program to best fit that child's needs should not be. Parents should have the option of using the tax dollars that fund their child's education to pay for what they believe to be the best education that child can receive in the state -- whether at another public school or at a private one.
Imagine if Baltimore City's parents had had that option for the two decades that have passed since advocates for children with disabilities sued the city school system. Baltimore schools likely still would be struggling, but thousands of children might not have been left without adequate services. Yet most parents had no alternative to the city's public schools and whatever the schools chose to offer to their special-needs children.
The case for parental choice is made stronger by the fact that most children in special-education come from low-income families. In his 2004 study of Baltimore's special-education system, "The Road to Nowhere," Kalman R. Hettleman of the Abell Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving life in Baltimore and Maryland, said, "Low-income, low-IQ, predominantly minority children make up the largest proportion of students with learning difficulties." Their parents are unlikely to have resources to pursue better solutions within the system.
But parents should not need political finesse, dogged persistence and deep pockets to attain a better education for their children. They should have the freedom to transfer tax dollars allocated for their child's education to a more appropriate program in the form of tax credits or vouchers.
-- Alison Lakeis managing editor at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a former public school teacher.