School choice is all about giving parents and students the power to get an education that works for them.
Many times the local district school is the best place to go.
But when the local district school is not providing the education that students need, changing the system without access to other education options can be really difficult.
That was the lesson that Columbia parents learned this month when they tried to improve the system to help their students succeed.
As one parent put it earlier this month, “special education in the Columbia Public Schools is broken.”
Parents of students with special needs asked for one thing — the right to record meetings with school staff about their children’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). By law, any Missourian already has the right to record a meeting with another person, but a Columbia Public Schools policy requires staff to terminate any meeting that is being recorded.
Over 20 parents and students turned out at the CPS school board meeting to discuss the issue, describing how important it is that they be able to re-hear key aspects of conversations about how their child will be educated.
“I think we’ve actually had up to 12 people in a meeting for one of my kids,” said parent Kate Canterbury. “They have each other to rely upon. They have each other’s notes to rely upon. They have each other’s memories of the meeting to rely upon. I only had me. It’s just me. Facing the 12 people trying to just do what is best for my kid and that’s what this is about.
“It’s really hard to be in that room and concentrate and remember every single detail and take notes,” she said. “When you have two kids like mine we often end up jumping back and forth and I can’t remember all we are discussing and I can’t get all that down.”
Canterbury said recording the meetings would also help her children take more control of their own educational goals and needs.
“Why would we not give them the ability to go back and listen to this?” she said. “Hear what is said and still make sure to put into action. Let’s get them the authority to do that.”
Instead of acting on the parents’ requests to change the policy to allow recordings of meetings, the Columbia school board tabled the issue.
Then they circled the wagons and made the parents the bad guys.
A district-wide email jointly signed by the district’s Board of Education President and superintendent bemoaned the fact that parents stood up to ask for a meaningful change in the system.
“Over the last few weeks, there appears to be an intentional campaign against the incredibly hardworking staff of Columbia Public Schools,” reads the email. “There is an intentional effort to discredit, disgrace, and destroy the reputations of our leaders at every level (principals, staff, and district-level).”
So, apparently, standing up and asking to do something you already have the legal right to do, something that will help parents help their children, is now an intentional campaign to destroy people at every level of a school system.
What the email did not mention is Columbia Public School’s failure to adequately serve students with special needs.
According to DESE data, only 13.2 percent of special needs students are proficient in ELA, only 9.4% are proficient in math, only 17.6% percent are proficient in social studies, and only 0.5% are proficient in science.
Additionally, Columbia Public Schools has 12 schools that are considered targeted schools by the state.
Target schools are identified when any subgroup (like students with special needs) are significantly underperforming their peers in the school. Statewide there are 335 targeted schools which makes up 15 percent of all schools in Missouri. In Columbia 35% of schools on are on the targeted list.
Columbia schools on the list include Alpha Hart Lewis, Blue Ridge Elem., Cedar Ridge Elem., David H. Hickman High, Derby Ridge Elem., John B. Lange Middle, Muriel W. Battle High School, Oakland Middle School, Parkade Elem., Rock Bridge Sr. High, Shepard Boulevard Elem., and West Boulevard Elem.
It seems like instead of accusing parents of coordinated attacks on the system, the system should do its job and work to provide the education all of its students deserve.
How the situation in Columbia plays out remains to be seen.
One thing is certain.
If those parents lived in St. Louis City or Kansas City then instead of fighting with the school bureaucracy, they could simply choose to send their children to a charter school that would be more open to listening to their concerns.
And if we had a program like an Empowerment Scholarship Account in Missouri, then those parents could afford to explore other options for their students.
This is why school choice matters.