Mia Roe is a special needs student who turned to a private school when her family said a public school wasn't meeting her needs.

State and federal laws require public schools to accommodate students with special learning needs. But the process of getting the right services to students can require so much vigilance that some parents give up and remove their child from public schools altogether.

"We were not satisfied after a few months into my daughter’s Individualized Education Plan," said Liz Roe, parent of 9-year-old Mia, who was identified has having dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes it difficult to read. "My daughter was coming home crying and saying her teacher was yelling at her when she was asking for additional help, the help that was specified in the plan."

The family decided to speak publicly about their experience and urge lawmakers to expand school choice options in Michigan.

To get the attention she needs, last year Roe and her husband pulled Mia out of Utica Community Schools and enrolled her in a parochial school that contracts with a private entity called the Lutheran Special Education Ministries.

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Four times a week for 45 minutes each, Mia goes to a resource room where she gets one-on-one and small-group tutoring. The resource room has a certified special education teacher who reviews Mia’s tests and helps her with unfinished homework. In addition, Mia’s regular classroom teacher provides notes on all the material discussed that day.

The experience has been far different from being in the public school.

"I wasn’t seeing any changes. In fact, her teacher was complaining with a classroom of 35 students, she was spending 45 percent of her time with Mia," said Roe. "Her comprehension wasn’t getting better. She wasn’t excelling."

Mia is happy that she now doesn't have to rely on a friend to take notes for her. It was against Utica school policy to use an audio recorder in class.

“I didn’t want my friend to have to stay in at recess to copy them,” she said.

Tuition at Mia’s school is $4,337 for nonchurch members, half the amount of tax revenue allocated to Utica Community Schools for each student (not including additional dollars the district gets for special education needs students).

“That we are able to educate special education students successfully is testament to what our private schools are doing,” said Richard Schumacher, assistant director of programs at Farmington Hills-based Lutheran Special Education Ministries.

LSEM’s history goes back to 1873, when it began as the Lutheran School for the Deaf. It now provides special education and gifted-learner services to 40 private schools, mostly Lutheran, throughout the country. The schools pay for the services through the money received from private donations and tuition.

Some states in which LSEM operates help parents with school voucher or tuition credit programs. Michigan’s constitution prohibits state revenues from supporting the attendance of any student at a nonpublic school.

Schumacher says eight schools in the last few years have dropped LSEM’s services because they couldn’t afford the partnership.

“The most common reason why we would lose a school is cost. We already charge only half of what it costs us to run the room, so we are doing our best to subsidize it as best as we can,” said Schumacher.

“Having the state maintain some sort of program to be able to help subsidize that, would be a game changer in my mind,” he adds.

Roe concurs. She said her daughter now loves school and is getting A's and B's on her report card. What she finds striking is the difference between what the private school charges and how much the state gives public schools to teach students with special needs.

“She’s getting a lot more service, smaller classes and individualized learning that is tailored to what she needs,” said Roe. She believes competition may be the reason for the more positive experience. If her private school doesn’t measure up, she can walk away.

“You’re paying the dollars, so you are expecting a quality result as opposed to having your tax dollars taken out before you’re able to spend them, and then getting a less-than-great package for your child,” said Roe.

Utica Community Schools declined to discuss the matter.

“The student involved has federal privacy rights that would prohibit us from responding directly to this inquiry,” said spokesman Tim McAvoy.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of public school students requiring services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grew from 796,000 in 1977 to 2,303,000 in 2012.

One reason has been the rise in students identified with a learning need, which Roe and Schumacher believe makes for a stronger case for expanding school choice options.

“I want lawmakers to know, I am the parent here who knows what is best for my child. One size does not fit all and if you are supporting free choice, than you need to make sure every option is made available,” said Roe.

Education scholars have done 12 random assignment studies of private voucher programs (the gold standard of research) across the nation — 11 found significant educational improvement, one found no significant improvement, and none found negative effects for student outcomes.


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