Did you hear it? Often?

One surprise in Tuesday’s Presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney? The mention of education over and over and over again…. And even the mention of special education and children with disabilities, including autism several times. HMMM. See, for example, Joanne Jacob’s write up.

I, for one, am glad that the issue is getting play nationally. Reforming special education is a vital part of ed reform. As my loyal readers and fellow reformers know, I believe our special education system is broken and needs broad systemic reform. In fact, in my view, we can’t really have effective school reform without doing something about special ed. So let’s hope this is the first of many steps.

But I question the “solution” of choice for parents that was put forth …as the answer. Yes, it may be part of an answer, but not the whole kit and caboodle. Yes, while I do think parents want and deserve choice, I have never understood the obsession with it, as if, by itself somehow good education programs will be created for all on a large scale.

Giving a ‘voucher (word not used in the debate) for $1200 or even $5000 or $ 8000 to parents won’t buy a $30,000 or higher priced special education placement. It will also take money from public schools, ultimately, leaving only the poorest and most disabled there. Not a pretty picture especially for those of us who believe deeply that public education for all students is a vital part of who we are as Americans. Not a pretty picture–especially when we deal with the unintended consequences of such a move….

Even if there was enough money thrown at this, will there ever enough good placements? This appears to be something like the constant challenge we face in education—that we get a ‘great idea’ and then OVERpromise it as a solution? How are Florida and other states doing with these vouchers? They’ve had several years …. I hear mixed news–depending on who one asks… Does anyone really know? And who is monitoring the unintended consequences?

But of course, life is full of ironies. One here is that we already have a voucher-like ‘program’ in special education. It’s called a “cost share” between parents and schools. When there is a dispute and request for hearing, often parents and schools “settle” the dispute by agreeing to share the costs of the private school or services that the parent seeks. No hearing is needed and people move on. BUT, then again, this possibility is available ONLY for parents who can ‘pay to play.’ That is, who have funds to be able to SHARE the cost. Many parents can’t do that. So, again, they are left behind. HMMM.

I confess that this issue needs work–far beyond what I can throw at it on this beautiful sunny day in October. But, to get back to the top—I’m glad to see special education receive national attention. We need to fix it! Your thoughts?

About Miriam

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, JD, MA—an expert in public education, focused on special education law— is a lawyer, author, speaker, consultant, and reformer. For more than 35 years, Miriam worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to translate complex legalese into plain English and focus on good practices for children. Now, she focuses her passion on reforming special education, with her new book, Special Education 2.0—Breaking Taboos to Build a NEW Education Law. Presentations include those at the AASA Conference, Orange County (CA), Boston College (MA), CADRE (OR), and the Fordham Institute (DC). Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Education Week, Education Next, Hoover Digest, The University of Chicago Law Review on line, DianeRavitch.net, and The Atlantic Monthly on line.

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