What do special-needs students need?

The whole premise of the anti-school-choice movement is that parents cannot be trusted to make sound educational decisions for their children. Still, it is jarring to hear people saying out loud that ESAs will harm special-needs children. These are precisely the children who could benefit most from an ESA.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act imposes certain procedural mandates on public schools. Among them is the requirement that public schools offer an Individual Education Program (IEP) to students who have special educational needs. Because IEPs are not mandated for private schools, ESA opponents say ESAs will harm special-needs kids. It’s nonsense.

First, New Hampshire public schools are mandated to coordinate with private schools to develop special education plans when a parent moves a special-needs child from a public to a private school.

Second, IEP regulations give parents a seat at the table when a child’s additional educational inputs are designed, but parents have only limited authority. School officials have the final say on IEP any IEP.

Third, the assumption that public (and only public) school officials are always right is only part of the problem. IEPs are necessarily limited. The blending of a traditional public school curriculum with an IEP might be great for most special-needs students, but it is not the best option for every child.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March, an IEP has to be more than just a minimal effort, but it does not have to be the best available program for a child’s specific needs. It only has to be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” If better alternatives are available, parents cannot make a district choose them.

In that Supreme Court case, an autistic child named Endrew F. (that’s spelled correctly) had an IEP, but failed to make the progress his parents knew he was capable of making. As the Supreme Court explained:

“Endrew’s IEPs largely carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next, indicating that he was failing to make meaningful progress toward his aims. His parents believed that only a thorough overhaul of the school district’s approach to Endrew’s behavioral problems could reverse the trend. But in April 2010, the school district presented Endrew’s parents with a proposed fifth grade IEP that was, in their view, pretty much the same as his past ones. So his parents removed Endrew from public school and enrolled him at Firefly Autism House, a private school that specializes in educating children with autism.

“Endrew did much better at Firefly. The school developed a “behavioral intervention plan” that identified Endrew’s most problematic behaviors and set out particular strategies for addressing them…. Firefly also added heft to Endrew’s academic goals. Within months, Endrew’s behavior improved significantly, permitting him to make a degree of academic progress that had eluded him in public school.”

Endrew’s story is familiar to some families of special-needs students in New Hampshire. A similar story in Newmarket is profiled here.

It’s absurd to say that making better options available to special-needs kids harms the kids. Some are served well by the public school system. Others need alternatives. They are unquestionably harmed by a system that prevents them from accessing those alternatives. That is exactly what opponents of Education Savings Accounts advocate.

Senate Bill 193, which would create ESAs in New Hampshire, will receive a House vote on Thursday. Opponents are using every absurd argument they can think of to defeat it. One talking point is that ESAs will make the opioid crisis worse because parents would steal the money and spend it on drugs. Could they be any more condescending to parents?

It is a good sign that opponents are abandoning rational arguments for absurdities. It means they know their weak arguments aren’t working.