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Another View -- Shalimar Encarnacion and Michelle Levell: A deeply offensive attack on students with special needs

January 02. 2018 9:30PM

Claiming that special-needs children will be harmed if their parents choose an outside education tailored to their specific needs is more than deeply offensive. It is harmful to the kids who need alternative services. Incredibly, that is what opponents of change in public education are doing.

This false claim is the latest assault on Senate Bill 193, which would create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) as one way to provide every child with an opportunity for an adequate education.

Under the bill, a qualifying family could apply for an ESA. If approved, the family could receive up to 95 percent of the state’s adequate education grant to seek an alternative education. Children who qualify for extra aid because they have special needs or are low-income would get that aid as well. Examples of alternatives include tutors, private schools, community college courses, and online education.

Opponents say that special-needs kids will lose their rights if their parent chooses an ESA. That’s just not true. These false accusations only hurt special-needs children and devalue what parents are able to do, and are doing, for their children.

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools have to offer what are called Individual Education Programs (IEPs). Children with identified special education needs must be offered an IEP that is designed to give them extra help while including them as much as possible in the regular curriculum.

Opponents of SB 193 say that because private schools aren’t covered by this exact requirement, special-needs kids will be harmed if they leave public schools. But that assumes that every single child with special needs is best served by a traditional public school education supplemented by an IEP. Parents of special-needs children who have been educated about their rights know this is not true.

One of us, Shalimar Encarnacion, knows this from experience. Her family’s story is not unusual.

At a young age, the Encarnacions’ youngest son, Angel, was diagnosed with chronic migraines, ADHD, and non-verbal learning disorder. These conditions created unique challenges, both in and out of school. Over the years with friends and family, but especially in the public school system, his difficulty with peer interactions would often get him into trouble.

The school’s response was to give Angel repeated in-school-suspensions. The Encarnacions were frustrated because they felt the school was not helping Angel reach his potential. In fact, the environment was actually hurting and inhibiting him. Though he had an IEP, the system just was not working for him. Ultimately, the family decided that he needed to be in a different environment. With the help of an educational scholarship grant, they were able to move Angel into a different school.

In a different learning environment, most of the problems that accompany having a disability that interferes with social skills melted away, and he thrived. Angel is a leader in his current school, is looking to college, and plans on a military career in the U.S. Naval Special Forces.

Even with the help of IEPs, the so-called guarantees offered in traditional public schools don’t always work. Sometimes, children need a completely different type of education than the public school can provide. Opponents are just wrong when they claim that every child is best served in a traditional public school.

They are also wrong and misleading in stating that parental placement in private schools removes IDEA protections from the student. The student does retain the right to access the services guaranteed by IDEA. The difference is that their family elects not to use those specific services while seeking different ones from an alternative provider, for example, a private school.

Moreover, the state requires public school districts and private schools to work together to develop a special education plan when a child with special needs moves from a public to a private school.

It just isn’t true that kids with special education needs would lose their rights if their family chooses to have their needs met outside their local public school. And it’s slighting to every parent with a special-needs child to claim parents can’t be trusted to understand the needs of their own children.

Many special-needs children need access to alternatives that can’t be provided through an IEP. We serve children best by helping their parents find and fund the services they need, not by keeping the students in a system that perhaps doesn’t work for them.

Shalimar Encarnacion is a Manchester mother of a special-needs teen. Michelle Levell is the director of School Choice for New Hampshire.

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