"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Special Needs of Georgia's Voucher Advocates

"Private schools are private schools, they are not obligated to take all these students. There's nothing in the law that requires them to do that." --Jeff Gagne, Overseer of the new Georgia voucher program

A significant cluster of all those children that conservatives do not want to leave behind is comprised of individuals with special needs. Since NCLB became law, these children, not to be left behind, have been forced to take tests that were not made for students with special needs and that, furthermore, do not assess learning that was supposed to accrue from these students' individual educational plans (IEPs). And because no NCLB subgroup's failing scores can be left behind, hundreds, if not thousands, of schools have been added to the federal failure lists because of entirely-predictable shortcomings of special needs students to score high enough to make AYP.

Enter, stage Right, parents and their legal advisors from the conservative think tanks to argue that public schools are not meeting the needs of their special needs students, and that, therefore, the parents of these children should be given vouchers to enroll their children where they can get the special attention they deserve. Remember the tests?

That was January, and now it is July, and Georgia has a brand new law that allows parents to receive a school voucher for their special needs child that is redeemable at any approved private or public school, religious or otherwise. Over a hundred private schools (50 of them religious) have already been approved by the state, and conservatives are high as a kite. In order to not get in the way of the sacred, invisible hand of the marketplace or God, as the case may be, the State has not intruded with bureaucratic requirements for these approved schools, such as certification requirements for teachers, the presence of programs for children with special needs, or regional accreditation (as required by public schools). Most importantly, however, these children now placed in private and religious schools no longer need to take the tests, remember the tests?, because the private schools, by virtue of being private, are not required to be accountable. The invisible hand, or the not so invisible one reaching into the taxpayers' pockets, will take care of all that accountability business.

Coming on the heels of the resegregation decision by SCOTUS, Georgia's voucher advocates have had most their special needs met now. Wealthier parents will be able to have their children classified special ed, declare they are not being served, and head off to the local Baptist academy with a fresh voucher. Poorer parents will have their children, who have been dragging down their schools' test scores, classifed for them and given the choice of a segregated religious school or a segregated secular private school. And that's the kind of choice that the choice advocates are shouting hallelujahs for. From Jim Wooten in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

. . . .The truly significant lesson from the week’s education news is that the marketplace has shown a willingness to embrace concepts that educrats think radical and that their interest groups and unions have resisted forever.

A successful introduction is not, however, success. Johnson and other supporters managed to resist attempts to saddle potential competitors with all the rules and regulations that cover traditional public schools. Critics note, for example, that private schools aren’t required to have curriculums tailored to special-needs children, or to hire certified teachers or those trained in special education. True enough.

They note, too, that competitiors are free to accept or reject applicants. True enough.

And hallelujah.

What’s happening here is that the locus of authority is tranferring from government to parents. For the first time in well over a century, the earth is moving in a direction that empowers parents — all parents, not just those with money.

For choice to be real, providers of education services should never, ever, be required to take every applicant. If they can’t serve a child’s particular needs — either because he’s disruptive, not up to grade, or deemed to have problems the school’s not equipped to address — they should be free to reject him.

When enough like-needs children exist, creative educators and entrepreneurs in the free market will create new schools. . . .

The freedom to accept or reject applications does not just apply to white Georgia country clubs, anymore.

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