I may not look like your typical public school advocate. I’m not opposed to private schools, and I even use a voucher for my son. I’ve also always loved public schools and advocated for our elected representatives to do a better job of funding and resourcing these valuable community institutions. Frustratingly, I’ve watched as morally-bankrupt radical special interests have spent decades undermining our public schools, chipping away at them year after year, until they start to buckle under the shear strain.
I would love to enroll my son at our local community public school. But I live in Arizona and my son has special needs, meaning the resources to educate my child here had already been stripped away through a myriad of defunding schemes. So my school choices were taken from me and I had to look around and see what options there were to find an education for my son. It turns out that I was the one who got an education. An education in the realities of living in a state at the forefront of “school choice” with a child who has unique and resource-intensive needs.
I decided to withdraw my son from our public school and take an Empowerment Scholarship Account voucher to help find him a place where his needs would be best met. Because of his disability, he qualified for roughly $40,000 per year on Arizona’s ESA voucher program, enough to fully cover the tuition at almost any school in the state. So we had choices. Or, we thought we had choices.
An often overlooked aspect of these voucher programs is they end up being publicly-funded education discrimination programs. Everywhere we went we were told my son would not be a good fit for their school and we were discouraged from even applying. We visited highly-rated private academies that touted their resources for special needs students only to be told his needs were too great, or that they weren’t right for us, and that they ended their special needs enrollment, while others who demanded to view my son’s files beforehand refused to even see us.
This entire situation is exacerbated by the reality that people pushing these privatization schemes and destroying public schools also require families like mine to give up federal protections for their children, as I had to do for my son because of his needs. We had to waive our federal Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) rights to be allowed to use the vouchers, meaning any private school that did accept him wasn’t legally required to provide him with adequate services. These issues could be addressed simply with minor legislation, but the lawmakers pushing these vouchers, while often parading special needs families around as the face of their privatization campaigns, have shown no interest in fixing these obvious problems. And that’s because they don’t really care about us. They didn’t care about my son when they diminished our public school’s capacity to care for and educate him, and they don’t care about my son when he’s using their prized vouchers.
We eventually found a microschool, one of the latest privatization schemes, that would take my son, only to find they were essentially abandoning him throughout the day and providing negligently minimal supervision, and this took us almost three years of continual searching to find.
It’s almost impossible to understand the environment that these “choice” programs create for desperate families. The amount of work I’ve had to invest just trying to find a private school simply willing to let my son in their doors has been exhausting. And that’s in addition to all the other resources necessary to make a private school work. I have to provide or secure transportation every day my son is in school. The workload is a lot for any family to take on, and in some cases the assault on public schooling is driving us to have no satisfying options.
Pamela Lang is a Phoenix Realtor, an advocate for public schools, and mother to a young son with disabilities. She is also a graduate student at Arizona State University and coaches students and others on writing and editing.