Yesterday, Debbie Meyer put up a post at Project Forever Free that, unfortunately, does not strain the limits of credulity. It's about her journey as a parent and advocate, about the struggle to get her child the educational services that he's entitled to, and her subsequent work in helping other parents learn how to do the same.
Struggles between parents of students with special needs and the public school system are all too common. And yes, sometimes the parents want things that are simply not realistic and yes, the published versions of these battles are often missing critical information because the school cannot defend its position by opening up confidential student records. Even so, there can be no doubt that sometimes it takes a good-sized legal firestorm to get public school administrators off their butts and busy getting those students the educational services to which they are absolutely entitled.
I am not going to argue for a single second about the rightness of Meyer's story or suggest that there's something wrong in the advocacy work she does.
But it brings up a question that nags at me about charters, vouchers, ESAs and the whole spectrum of free market choice-centered ed reform ideas. Aside from my philosophical objections to such systems, I want to ask-- what happens to a child like this in a free market education system?
Early on in the article, Meyer says this:
I successfully advocated for my illiterate, suicidal fourth-grader to get a free and appropriate education at a school specializing in proper instruction for dyslexic kids and struggling readers.
"Free and appropriate education" is only a thing in public schools. If you tell me that parents like Meyer shouldn't have to hire lawyers and make phone calls and call for meeting after meeting and all manner of exertions to get their child that FAPE, I will absolutely agree with you. The level of advocacy that she talks about shouldn't be necessary, but here's the thing-- it's possible for parents dealing with public schools. A charter or private school--if they even accepted the student in the first place-- can offer a much simpler response to a parent like Meyer. "There's the door."
I understand how charter-choice fans envision certain parts of a free market education system would work. I think they're wrong, but I grasp their vision. But I've never seen an explanation of what is supposed to happen to a child like this.
A pubic school system cannot wash their hands of a child. Even if they say, "We can't/don't want to educate that child in our building," they must then foot the bill for a specialized school that can do the job. There is no corresponding responsibility in a choice system.
How is it supposed to work. Of the charters that will spring up, one will be interested in offering a costly program that will only serve a few students? In a voucher system, the voucher or ESA will provide enough money to cover tuition at a specialized private school for such students? Will charter and other private schools fall all over themselves competing for students who are difficult--and expensive--to educate? None of those things seems likely, at all. In a public school system, parents like Meyer ultimately have the law on their side (even though it shouldn't have to come to that). Who is on their side in a free market system? It can't be enough to have a politician say, "Here's a check. Good luck to you searching the marketplace for someone who both can and will educate your child."
Yes, this is the result of a philosophical issue, a fundamental shift from "The government is responsible for providing your child with a free and appropriate education" to "You now have the freedom to search the marketplace in hopes that it happens to make available what you need. See ya."
It's a philosophical issue, but these stories always remind me of parents I had known, and it is painful and distressing to watch them have to devote their time and energy to forcing a school to honor its legal obligation, but then I imagine them calling and sifting through a marketplace school by school and after they've rejected or been rejected by every available choice realizing that there is literally nothing else they can do, nobody they can call, nowhere to turn.
If you're a free marketeer, I invite you, sincerely, to tell me what I'm missing. In his book about Success Academy, Robert Pondiscio has an insightful line: "A significant tension between public schools and charter schools is the question of who bears the cost and responsibility for the hardest-to-teach students.” The answer, of course, has most often been that the public schools will shoulder that responsibility. But a mostly free market system where a small parallel public system is maintained as a catch-basket for students with special needs seems unlikely to make anyone happy.
Another possibility--one I've never seen discussed--is to make charter and choice schools bear the same weight of law as public schools, but I don't know how you would even begin to enforce such a thing--"Because Pat applied here, you have to accept Pat and you have to institute a program to meet Pat's special needs." How many ways would that school find to convince Pat's family to withdraw?
The public system may not much like the Debbie Meyers of the world some days, but they have to deal with them anyway. The free market education world does not, and I have to believe that's bad news for a lot of children.