By Shalimar Encarnacion
I am a mother of three (now adults) from Manchester, a former co-chair of the Manchester NAACP Education Committee, and a supporter of school choice. Let me tell you why.
As a Hispanic leader of color in my community, I’ve seen firsthand how many of our communities don’t have equal access to educational resources. Today, people talk a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion. Those need to be goals in our educational system as well. Too often, the system falls short.
School choice would offer a huge step forward. It would help achieve our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals by removing barriers so our kids can reach their potential.
It would help students to succeed by letting parents put educational resources to use in the way that would best meet their child’s individual learning needs.
My path for parent advocacy in this area started when my children were having difficulty in school. Though all three of my children had childhood illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, I want to talk about my youngest, Angel, who incidentally just so happens to also have a dark skin complexion.
Angel was always struggling. He’s very high functioning on the autism spectrum, which went undiagnosed until he was nine. He has ADHD as well and is prone to severe migraines. He started with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in third grade, and was later downgraded to a 504 plan in high school.
In sixth grade, he was having lots of difficulty at our local public school. When he started at the middle school, we told them about the situation and asked if they could accommodate him. They said no to our requests, and they repeatedly refused many ideas that would align with his IEP.
He would always end up having problems with the teachers and the environment. The stress would trigger his migraines and cause him a lot of anxiety, which would have him acting out of his normal behaviors. The school’s repeated response to this was to give him in-school suspensions.
His father and I pulled him from that school. With help from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, we were able to put him in St. Casimir’s. He was there in eighth grade and he did amazingly well. It was a night-and-day difference for him.
He begged us to never send him back to public school.
But after his father took on a new job with a higher income, we no longer qualified for the amount of scholarship that made it possible for us to move him to the private high school.
Had education freedom accounts been around then, we would have been able to use our state per-pupil education money to bridge the gap between what we could afford and what we needed to send him to a high school that would meet his needs.
But those accounts don’t exist. So today, Angel is back in the public school, where he is repeating his senior year. He is struggling.
I like saying that these things don’t have to be looked at as either/or propositions. We should look to these solutions from a both/and perspective.
Public schools don’t work for everyone, the same way private schools don’t work for everyone. Everywhere you turn, there are so many choices. Yet k-12 public education doesn’t offer all students the choices that work best for them.
We should make it possible for parents to choose what works best for their child.
I’ve spoken with multiple families who say that a choice program such as education freedom accounts would help them a lot. I know families that are struggling to pay for private school out of pocket because they don’t qualify for scholarships.
A school choice option such as an education freedom account would let parents put that money toward tuition, tutoring, tech training, special education services, college-level courses, online education, or even tuition at another public school. It would give families the ability to choose the education that works best for their children and not be stuck with whatever service their district school offers, regardless of whether it works for their child.
School choice is for the children. It is the only way to provide the best option for each individual child. It is about equity and inclusion for all, especially for students from communities of color. It’s important that you can see it through that lens. The system is full of forgotten children. We can’t keep denying them options.
Shalimar Encarnacion is a mother of three from Manchester.