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School vouchers

By Jim Killebrew

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[February 14, 2014]  Public education is in turmoil and has been pronounced by some as a dismal failure. School districts are charged with the responsibility of providing a quality education for all children, no matter what their needs. Some school programs have excelled in quality education, but others have not. Resources are always a question, and finding those resources among families with few resources is a problem. School vouchers have been discussed for some time across the land. Hence the use of vouchers to offer families a choice among educational programs that offer the educational support an individual student needs regardless of any district to which the child belongs.

Some school districts and union officials have resisted the use of vouchers, claiming it places the districts in jeopardy of losing students to other districts, causing a loss of funding for home districts and a reduction of teachers in that district. This is especially true for those children with special needs.

These days we hear so much about the "No Child Left Behind" law that seems to force teachers to "teach toward the test." Other teachers have been heard to say they must teach toward the greater number of children in the midrange and simply do not have time or resources to teach those above or below the mean. Consequently, through the evolvement from the first enactment of the federal law 94-142 that requires children with special needs to be educated through the development of individual educational plans, or IEPs, school districts have been experimenting to find the best way to follow the laws and provide a functional education for a child with special needs.

Those experiments have produced a myriad of "solutions" that range from individual tutoring to mainstreaming. A totally forgotten group traditionally has been those individuals who have been institutionalized and cared for through some derivative of a state-financed facility that has segregated people with special needs into one place, no matter where they lived in the state. The education for those people was relegated to total segregation, where the "mean" was lowered yet again. Today, as a result of a long-standing practice of "deinstitutionalization" and "normalization," many of those same people with special needs live in segregated "group homes" and spend their days in a "sheltered workshop" with others with cognitive, intellectual or other developmental disabilities.

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The problem with the past methods of helping people with special needs has been an almost complete separation of the individual from his/her primary support group, the natural family. When the educational system of today, post-"normalization" practices, speaks of public education for people with special needs, by and large it means separating them sometime during the educational day into a classroom where others with similar needs are placed.

Our long history of "separate but equal" in other arenas of life should have taught us that separation from the mainstream does not always mean the quality of those services are equal. The only way the equality for separate services can have a chance to reach and maintain the quality that is meant for the mainstream services is for the person with special needs to have a strong advocate, and that advocate should be the family.

Educators are going to have to realize that the power of quality rests in a system where the provider of those services must be challenged to continually strive for the "best practice" for each individual. The idea of "if you build it, they will come," works only if the system continues to build excellence and quality and maintains dynamic change to attract those who choose that service.

For children with special needs who need support to advocate for themselves to make the choices they need to make to have the best quality of services, the parent or family must have the power to shop around and choose the best available service among services. With that power through vouchers and other methods of having resources, they will not have to settle for only what is offered by one service provider alone.


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