Is It Discrimination? The Reality of “Choice Scholarship” for Kids With Special Needs

The Choice Scholarship Program allows kids who win the lottery to apply to both secular and religious private schools. But what if they have special needs?

I was listening to NPR, as I usually do on my way to pick up my son from preschool before the soundwaves get hijacked by Bubble Guppies DVDs. This is my 15-minute news window, where I fill my head with as many current cultural events as I can before re-entering kid kingdom.
I didn’t know what I was getting into that day. That one bout of radio news would send me into a sleepless night that I would spend erecting a soapbox from which to issue my grievances. The segment was on public versus private school usage of vouchers in Indiana. I live in Tennessee. This should not have triggered me, but it hit me all wrong, like a sharp jab in the funny bone.
The current policy of the “Choice Scholarship Program” allows kids who qualify and win the lottery to apply to both secular and religious private schools. According to NPR, “how it came to be, how it works and whom it serves — has become a national story of freedom, faith, poverty, and politics.”
Because here’s the thing: If a kid with special needs wins the golden ticket, his or her options are still limited. There’s so much leeway in the private school’s jurisprudence that the child can be turned away for having special needs – something a public school could not do under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Private schools have been turning away kids, not because they are unwelcome, but because their needs will not be able to be met. The funding is just not there.
seeking freelance writers to submit work about families, parenting and kids
And that’s what got to me. That’s what led to my insomnia and mind melt. My son is five and has cerebral palsy, which has resulted in global developmental delays. He attends a private inclusive preschool for children with both normal development and special needs. Many of his peers are siblings of other kids with disabilities or the children of the therapists that work there.
The school is a magical unicorn of hope. It’s been his castle on a hill since he was two. But it ends in a year. We’re already pushing it, keeping him until six and past “senior” level. I’m rallying the board for a kindergarten, but time and money are hard to come by despite the need.
So, a year from now we will be attending assessments and requesting doctor’s recommendations and touring the public elementary school in our zone. We moved to our current county – one of the best in the state – specifically because we knew this day was coming and wanted to be prepared.
If you’re a parent of a child, with special needs or not, you think toward their future more than your current comfort. We couldn’t be in a better place as far as we’ve discerned from backyard talk and the cross-examining of his therapists. It’s going to be okay. But it doesn’t change the fact that we don’t really have another choice.
One of the women from Indiana interviewed in the NPR segment has three children – two girls and a son on the autism spectrum. She lucked out. Won the lottery. Her daughters attend her church’s school. She loves it dearly. But her son is not on the roster. They very graciously explained that, though he “can” attend, they cannot meet his needs. They simply don’t have the therapists, the specialists, the money to teach him.
Is this discrimination? Honestly, I’m not sure.
Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s superintendent, says it is. Yet as a former teacher in both public and private schools, I’ve seen the reality of government funding. I know what money can buy. It buys special needs departments, speech programs, physical equipment, occupational therapists, training days.
It buys a future for my son.
I had been teaching for five years at the private school where I envisioned my children would attend when I became pregnant with our son, long enough to qualify for half-tuition – the dream and the goal.
But when my son was born 10 weeks early and diagnosed with CP one month into his NICU stay, I knew the dream would have to end. The school did not have a special needs program beyond general learning disabilities. They just weren’t equipped to deal with a kid who would come home with a trach and eventually need a wheelchair and speaking device.
They wanted to love him. But they could not teach him. To me, this is not discrimination. It is a recognition of limits.
But it still breaks my heart. It still led to our move into a different county. It’s still enough to keep me up at night asking – along with my compatriot in Indiana – why can’t my child have the same options as all the rest, even the same as his siblings?
I’m a realist. I get it. But I don’t have to like it. I don’t have to let it pass as easily as the turn of a radio dial.