Most parents are advocates of school choice -whether we identify ourselves that way or not. We would choose to send our children to the best school in our neighborhood over the one which was just simply around the corner, that is, if we could. Upper middle class parents routinely choose to buy homes in neighborhoods where the schools are superior – that was the earliest, and is still the most common, form of school choice.
Parents of children with special needs have been called “extreme choosers” when it comes to finding the right school for their child. That’s because their children’s needs often don’t fit the mold, and some differences in schools, which may be small to most people, are often critical to parents of special needs children. Here’s a good example – a 5 year old child with ADHD or a high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder is entering Kindergarten. Let’s call him “Arne.” Arne’s bright and is ready for school academically, but he has a lot of trouble paying attention, staying in his seat and successfully transitioning from one class or activity to another. Transitions are very disruptive for him, and routine is very important.
Ordinarily, I would recommend that Arne’s family use public school choice to transfer to one of the best public elementary schools in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the county, which happens to be under-enrolled (i.e., it has open seats). That school – let’s call it Crestview Elementary – has some of the most skilled teachers in the county who could surely use winning strategies to keep him on task. Why is Arne’s family an “extreme chooser?” Because Crestview is not a good fit for their special needs child. Crestview’s kindergartners have different teachers for Math and Reading – not one teacher like most kindergarten program around the country. That means Crestview has too many points of transition for Arne. It would add another layer of adjustment for him – one which he may not be able to overcome easily.
So, Arne’s family is looking at all their options – private school using the McKay Scholarship, public school choice to another under-enrolled school in the county, and charter schools. A charter school is a public school which operates more like a private school, more independently, than your neighborhood public school which answers directly to the school board. Like all schools, some charter schools are good and others are not – they simply provide another choice for kids like Arne who have great potential in the right classroom setting. But your child can’t just show up at the doorstep of a charter school and apply – kids usually win admission through a lottery system. There are over a million students being served in about 3,500 charter schools nationwide, and as you might imagine, most of those schools are designed for general education students. In fact, in some quarters charter schools are under attack for serving fewer special needs students than traditional schools do.
On the other hand, there are a growing number of charter schools which invite or even cater to special needs students. We have an excellent example of a superb special needs charter school in Miami – the South Florida Autism Charter School. A year or so ago group of professional parents who have children with moderate to severe autism started that school, which uses ABA therapeutic interventions. It is now overrun with applicants, “extreme choosers” who are willing to travel to a far-flung part of Miami to get their children a good education. I believe charter schools for kids with disabilities represent a tremendous opportunity for children whose needs are not being met in traditional public schools. Special needs private schools are often just too costly for the vast majority of parents to afford – even with the McKay Scholarship – and in the end, these children, who often don’t score well on standardized tests, such as the FCAT, are not wanted by, and perceived as a drain on, the traditional public system.