No School Choice: Louisiana Special Education

Ashley McReynolds and her son, Cooper. Photo by Sue Lincoln.

BATON ROUGE, La. – At first, Ashley McReynolds thought “school choice” meant good news for her son Cooper.

“I was hopeful—before I read the legislation—that this was going to be a way for me to get Cooper out of a failing public school system and into a non-public setting,” says the mother of the 6-year-old with special needs. Cooper has Prader-Willi syndrome, autism spectrum, epilepsy, ADHD and asthma. He’s starting kindergarten in the fall, at a public school that’s rated a D-minus.

But McReynolds and other parents say the detailed language in the bill leaves them with no choice for their children. The new law does not require private or parochial schools that accept “scholarship students” (vouchers) to make any provisions for special education students—“only such services as are available to all students enrolled in the nonpublic school.”

Christy Cormier, whose daughter Carly has a developmental disability, says the School Choice Law actually requires parents to sign away their child’s federal rights.

“Parents like myself would have to give up those protections that are provided to her under IDEA,” says Cormier.

Carly Cormier

IDEA is the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law passed in 1990, it says that every child has the right to a “free, appropriate public education”. It also provides funding for the additional services that students like Cooper McReynolds and Carly Cormier need, in order to learn effectively.

Cormier says, “The consequence to giving up my child’s protections and services under IDEA is too high of a price. It means her future.”

Louisiana’s School Choice Act also provides for massive and rapid additions of charter schools statewide, but parents of special-needs students aren’t expecting those will offer much in the way of options. Although charters are public schools, so far they don’t have a good track record of providing special education services. According to Louisiana Department of Education’s own data, 91-percent of charter schools in the state do not serve students with multiple disabilities. In addition, the department is currently embroiled in a federal class action lawsuit that alleges “in New Orleans, an estimated 4,500 students with disabilities are denied equal access to educational opportunities, routinely pushed out of school, and subject to discrimination on the basis of their disabilities.”

Penny Dastugue, president of Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), says it’s too soon to say the school choice law won’t help special education students. She says parents may be able to work something out with the non-public schools.

“Perhaps that school can contract with the school district, you know, for some services that would round out—sort of–the education.” Dastugue says that occurs now. “We have non-public students coming into our public schools and receiving special education services because of the availability of IDEA dollars.”

Dastugue says the state still needs to have discussions with the federal government about what happens to the IDEA dollars when special-needs students choose to attend non-public schools.

McReynolds says she knows what’s going to happen—lawsuits. Several groups that assist families of children with disabilities are already polling their members about instigating legal action.

“I know that there are several parents within the special needs community that are concerned, but they’re not even willing to go the lawsuit route,” says McReynolds. Instead, she says, those families are giving up on Louisiana.

“They’re leaving the state,” she says.

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