Private Schools ‘Have No Intention of Accepting Kids With Disabilities,’ Public School Advocate Says

Jessica Landis, center, with Chance Spieser, 3, and Harmony Spieser, a rising 5th grader in New Hanover County public schools. They attended a public school rally in Raleigh on June 21. (Photo by Michael McElroy)

By Michael McElroy

June 30, 2023

Republican lawmakers say expanding access to private schools gives all parents more say in their children’s education. But that’s not the case, especially for those who have children with disabilities.

North Carolina ranks last in the nation in public school funding effort, which simply means that 49 other state legislatures show more concern for their public schools than this state does.

Republican lawmakers have underfunded public schools for so long that several courts have ruled their efforts unconstitutional, ordered them to spend more money, and devised a detailed Leandro Plan, named after a lawsuit from 1994, that specified the funding it would take to meet the legislators constitutional obligation to offer every student a sound and equitable education. 

Lawmakers have ignored the ruling.

Instead, Republicans in the General Assembly are poised to pass a law that would expand a private school voucher program intended for low-income families so that even wealthy families could pay their child’s tuition with tax-payer money. 

This so-called “kids first” approach, Republicans say, will give parents power over their children’s education and allow them to choose whatever school they want. 

But as other states with voucher expansions have seen, the vast majority of the vouchers go to wealthy families with students already in public schools. The move does not give much choice at all for families in public schools. 

That is especially true in rural areas where there may be only a few, if any, private schools. And it is also especially true for children with disabilities. 

While private schools often market themselves as a haven for special education, the reality is far different, Susan Book, a public school advocate who has a child with autism, says.

Book’s son, Emerson, is a rising eighth grader in Wake County Schools, and though they are both happy with the school he’s in now, that was not always the case.

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Emerson Pope, Wake County student, explains why public school funding is especially important for kids with disabilities. Private schools are allowed to choose not to accept students with disabilities or charge their parents more. publicschools publicschool schoolfunding schools school schoolchoice charterschools publicschoolfunding kidswithdisabilities kids disabled disabledkids helpingkidswithdisabilities childrenwithdisabilities kidwithdisabilities

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“I tried to find a private solution to a very public school problem,” she said at a public school rally this month outside the legislature.

“What I found was shocking.”

Private schools often have entrance demands that students with disabilities can’t meet—or they charge parents exorbitant extra fees.

Private schools, Book said, are “an unregulated marketplace that has no intention of accepting kids with disabilities.”

We spoke to Book recently about her experience with private schools and how the voucher expansion and the continued failure to fund public schools makes things so much worse. We’ve lightly edited our conversation for length and clarity. 

Cardinal & Pine: What is the current state of a school system’s ability to adequately give students with disabilities the care and education they need?

Susan Book: Schools and education, in general, are sometimes ill-equipped for students with disabilities, especially, neurodiverse children, because that science is emerging. And so a lot of both private or public institutions are catching up. So it’s really hard for a school to adjust their thinking on, for example, what is autism? What is ADHD? 

We’re finding out new things and new therapies and new ways to think about autism and disability right now. And it takes a while for anyone to catch up to some extent. So that makes things like school very, very hard. 

You’ve talked publicly about trying to find private solutions for your son Emerson’s education. What was that process actually like for your family? Did you find private schools receptive to accepting Emerson?

The problem with the private industry is that they’re looking for your dollars or they’re looking for those state dollars and they’re going to market to you and tell you they’re the best school for your child.

When I started even stepping my toe out there, the amount of Facebook ads I got for private schools was [enormous]. I was getting lots and lots of ads for schools that had no intention of taking my kid because my kid couldn’t or even wouldn’t take their entrance exam. And so one of the first barriers to private schools is entrance exams. 

The current legislation takes money from the public school system and gives it to private schools, so how would public schools be able to solve their problems with even less funding?

How does defunding public schools solve the problem? It doesn’t solve anything. Defunding public schools has a tremendous effect on all vulnerable children, but especially children with disabilities. We rely on all of the extra help that we can get. 

One of the best things that children with disabilities get in the classroom is instructional assistants. The more instructional assistants you have in that building—or the more extra hands you have in that building—to help when a kid is in crisis, to help a kid walk in the hallway, perhaps ahead of the bell schedule, so that they’re not in a crowded hallway with a lot of noise, [the better]. They’re the unsung heroes of the disability world. And when we lose funding, we lose instructional assistance. And we’ve seen this. I think we, at one point, lost 7,000 positions in a decade.

And that’s because of how little the legislature has allocated for salaries?

Yes. We started losing them and they’ve just never been restored. I would say school psychologists, our speech therapists, our occupational therapists, these are key. And when we don’t pay them what they’re worth—for example, if we don’t pay them [based on] the master’s degree that they already have, we don’t have enough of them. I mean, schools are sharing these resources, if they have them at all.

Then are private schools or an expanded voucher program a solution for parents with students with disabilities?

They are a solution for a select number of parents [of children with] disabilities. If your student has the right disability, if you’re interested in a very specific ideology of a school, yeah, you can use that voucher. But it’s just not for everyone. There aren’t enough spaces. 

How would the voucher expansion and more privatized system create additional problems for families with students with disabilities in rural counties?

I guarantee it would get worse because there are less private solutions. In some of our counties, you might have two church schools and that’s it. And they may have absolutely zero resources for students with disabilities. In fact, we have found that people are coming from other counties to look for private schools in our larger counties. Rural counties are even more defunded than the rest of North Carolina. Private schools can’t retain special education teachers either. They don’t require a special education teacher. So you’re turning your kid over to a school that has absolutely no qualifications to actually teach a child with a disability.

What do people who care about these things—what can and should they do? What is your focus right now in the face of the bills coming down the pike?

Well, first, you’re a parent. Do what is best for your child first, no matter what that is, no matter what it looks like politically. That’s your job as a parent. And I’m not going to condemn you for that. No one else should either.

Second, always remember that you are part of a community and your community needs your voice. So if you’ve been hurt by public schools and they’re not working for you, make some noise and let people know that there is a way to make things better.

The problem with a voucher solution is that it doesn’t help enough children, especially those who are most vulnerable, who have the least amount of resources. So what do we do to help all children?

And for me, the solution is to build up our public schools, to fund them as much as we can. We’ve never even seen what overfunding means. We’ve never even gotten close. We haven’t even tried to really fund our public schools in North Carolina in a very long time. So let’s see what that looks like.

It just goes back to being in that struggle. So we as parents have our own choices and one of them is to participate in that struggle in our own public schools and to make those public schools work for us.

Author

  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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