Give Michigan Special-Needs Students Fair Access to the Best Options

Michigan should consider a full range of choice

Last fall, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley took the helm of a group to recommend reforms to Michigan’s special education system. For affected Michigan families looking for something better, one particular solution, unfortunately, lies out of immediate reach.

The special education task force, primarily comprised of educators and policymakers, is working to address problems Calley identified after a 2015 town hall listening tour throughout the state.

The desire to improve services reflects in part the scale of the challenge. More than one in eight students served in Michigan public schools received special education services during the 2014-15 school year, according to data from the state’s Center for Educational Performance and Information. The nearly 200,000 children have a range of mild to severe disabilities.

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Parents like Macomb Township’s Liz and Jamie Roe can personally attest to some real struggles. Last summer, the Mackinac Center documented the frustration they faced in trying to get the specialized help their dyslexic daughter Mia needed. The situation reached the point where Mia was coming home from school in tears, and her teacher told her parents that her case was “hopeless.”

Finding the services of Lutheran Special Education Ministries, for a tuition rate significantly lower than the per pupil tax revenues collected in their local school district, was a watershed moment for the Roe family.

Liz Roe painted a clear picture of the dramatic turnaround in a piece she wrote for the Jan. 24 edition of the Lansing State Journal:

Because our family could afford the choice, Mia started fourth grade with a clean slate in her new school ….

We finally felt like Mia was in a place where she belonged, where she received individualized assistance for her learning from teachers trained specifically to help her succeed. Instead of a Band-Aid or a diluted curriculum, she was given tools that fit the way she learned. She finally got up in the morning wanting to go to school!

Not every family of special-needs children frustrated by the services they receive can afford such an alternative. Calley’s fifth and final finding reflects the concern: “Support parents more with resources and options,” his report states.

Doubtless the task force is not contemplating the full range of options, because of exceptionally stringent language in Michigan’s constitution that forbids indirect aid to private schools.

Officials are to be commended for seeking to improve public special education services to a consistently high level. But fundamentally, parents ought to decide where the dollars designated to serve their children go.

Currently, nine states have authorized private school choice programs specifically tailored to provide valuable aid to families with special-needs children. Altogether, tens of thousands of students have experienced the benefit.

Among them are Arizona’s Jordan Visser and Max Ashton, Florida’s Faith Kleffel, and Oklahoma’s Phylicia Lewis. Studies in Florida and Arizona have demonstrated significant increases in parental satisfaction. Michigan’s neighbors Ohio and Wisconsin offer similar programs.

We are currently in the midst of National School Choice Week, a grass roots commemoration of parents’ power and freedom to select the best education environment for their children. Getting into the spirit, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a proclamation declaring January 24-30 “Michigan School Choice Week,” as well.

Last year, more than 100 students gathered at the Michigan State Capitol as one of 11,000 events nationwide. This year, the number exceeds 16,000, many of which you can find open to the public.

Here’s hoping that the state’s special education task force leads to better educational services and results for more of Michigan’s special-needs children. But without a drastic policy change, some families will continue to lack a fair shot at the full range of options that just might serve them best.

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