The most frequent call that we receive in our office is from a parent, or other family member, unhappy with the quality of service that their child is receiving from their local school district. Often, these calls are from parents of special needs children and they are seeking an alternative to the district that is failing them. These parents cannot afford a private service provider such as Logos Schools or Giant Steps and have exhausted all options to work with their local district. So what are the options for parents, and children, in this situation? Unfortunately, very few exist.
There are few scholarship programs that exist for special needs students, especially if you are in a high school grade level. While there are financial assistance programs for early intervention of younger students, they are usually focused on a few specific disabilities and are limited in the scope of what the assistance will cover. The dollar amount of these programs is usually not enough for a parent to remove their child from a school district and place them in private services.
A common piece of advice that a parent receives is to call an IEP meeting to review their child’s goals and the progress toward those goals. The IEP is the Individualized Education Plan that is put together for a special needs student outlining goals for that individual student’s education, and how they will be met. Parents who call our office report their frustration with the IEP process. They state that no one in the meeting is on their side and education terms are not clearly defined. The overall feeling is that they are railroaded into the plans put together by the teachers or agencies in the meeting and have very little input. Meetings called by a parent to review a struggling student’s IEP often begins with a long delay in even holding the meeting and ends with the student’s little progress being excused away. The parent eventually gets tired of fighting this system and begins to seek a way to remove their child from the district that is failing them.
When a parent begins on this road, they quickly find that it is very difficult to move their child. In St. Louis and Kansas City, public charter schools may be one option. Unfortunately, there are no charter schools that focus only on special needs. The main roadblock to this is that, per Missouri’s charter school law, students must be admitted by a lottery process and not screened in any way before entry. It remain to be seen if a charter school in St. Louis or Kansas City built for special needs students would be successful solely based on the thought that only parents of special needs students would apply to a lottery for their school. According to the Center for Education Reform, there are 85 special needs charter schools in the country, mostly in Florida and Ohio. Even if these schools were to open in St. Louis and Kansas City and be successful, what option does a parent outside of those two districts have? Missouri is the only state in the country that has a geographic cap on charter schools. This cap limits charter schools to opening only inside of the St. Louis and Kansas City Public School districts. The schools can also only accept students who live in these districts.
Parents who call our office usually know that the law requires a free, appropriate public education to be afforded to their child. Therefore, they ask “can’t I just transfer my child to another district with better services?” The answer is unfortunately “no.” This ideal is called open enrollment and Missouri has yet to join the 40 other states in the country who have some form of open enrollment. Open enrollment simply allows parents to transfer their child to a school outside of their assigned district if the receiving district has room. For more on open enrollment, check out our previous post on how open enrollment would help special needs students.
Parents also call in and ask if there are special schools in their district only for special needs students. Twenty three districts contract with Special School District (SSD) of St. Louis County, who operates five special education schools. This leaves 500 districts in the state of Missouri without this option. Parents also report to us the difficulty of getting their child moved into SSD. One parent reported their child being suspended 11 times in the current school year before the district would discuss SSD as an option. According to the parent, this child was on an IEP the previous year and had far fewer behavioral incidents, but was removed from an IEP in the current school year, against the parent’s wishes.
The bottom line in all of these stories is that the parents of the 133,000 Missouri children with IEPs have very few options when they feel the assigned local district is not able to meet the needs of their child. Implementing real education reforms in Missouri will have a positive impact on special needs families. Open enrollment, charter school expansion and scholarship tax credit programs are all good ways to give parents options when their assigned local districts are not educating their children. Districts should look at this recent United Supreme Court case as evidence that the law gives parents great powers when seeking the appropriate education for their child. Districts should jump on board for reforms, or risk paying for children to go to specialized schools, even without their consent. Furthermore, having options will help these children on a path to become productive members of society. Isn’t that what everyone should be working toward?