Virginia faced with choice in education policy: Special-needs students vs. special interests

Virginia faced with choice in education policy: Special-needs students vs. special interests

Virginia State Delegate Dave LaRock is making an impassioned plea for enactment of education savings accounts (ESAs), which face intense opposition from institutional special interests.

His House Bill 2238 would provide an average of $4,000 annually to parents of special-needs students to shop for schools and services that best serve their children. The measure has passed the House and will be voted on in the Senate this week.

LaRock, cited the case of a Chesapeake boy to illustrate the need for his legislation:

Carson Luke was only in second grade when workers in his school locked him in a room they called ‘the quiet room,’ a room described by his mother as ‘a concrete room with deadbolts that looks like it’s out of an old Russian prison.’ His hand and foot were both broken as he was shut inside by school workers. Carson has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ‘No parent should ever have to face the nightmarish scenario where they have no choice but to send their child to a public school where their child is terrified, miserable, and failing to get the education he or she needs — but that’s exactly what many parents face.

Carson’s story and many others like it were presented to the Virginia General Assembly this year. Lawmakers responded in part by passing a law requiring the Board of Education to develop regulatory guidelines for seclusion and restraint that public schools in the Commonwealth would have to follow.

“Ironically, this simple step was opposed by lobbyists for school boards and principals, who wanted more discretion in secluding and restraining their pupils,” LaRock said, adding:

Carson’s story is symptomatic of a real problem: Public schools are often unable or unwilling to cope with the demands of educating and caring for their special-needs students. And while it’s important to require schools to follow commonsense rules when it comes to secluding and restraining students, it would be naive to think that this law will result in schools suddenly being able to meet the needs of their special-needs pupils.

LaRock said his ESA proposal will allow parents who opt out of public education to have access to a portion of their child’s share of state public school funding, which they can use for an instructional program custom-tailored to their child’s needs. Families can add to the savings account with their personal funds.

“This program has seen amazing success in other states (including Arizona and Florida) where it has been enacted, and it has life-changing potential for the boys and girls who are trapped in an unfriendly public school environment,” he declared.

But it’s not a done deal in Virginia. Said LaRock:

Just as the professional public school establishment fought the effort to bring some sanity to the practices of seclusion and restraint, many are fighting tooth and nail in a turf war against any hint of educational choice, even for the most needy and vulnerable of their students. Even policies like education savings accounts that would mean better outcomes for students and more dollars per pupil for children who remain in public schools face resistance from the entrenched establishment.

Officials acknowledge that the number of students in costly special-ed categories is skyrocketing. Rates of students with autism and other health impairments are up 23% in just the past five years.

LaRock’s bill would defray public costs associated with special-needs students by diverting 90% of the state’s share of those students’ pubic school funding to parents who withdraw that child from school. That state portion would be loaded into a debit card to be used by qualifying families for their children’s education expenses.

Avoiding the politically polarizing term, “voucher,” ESAs have been viewed differently by courts because the money goes directly to parents, who can spend it on things other than private school.

The bill has three big hurdles left. The Virginia Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers’ union, is adamantly opposed to any legislation that uses tax dollars to move children out of public schools. School boards also are resistant, even though their local funding would not be touched by HB 2238.

Having lost their fight in the House, 57-42, opponents will try to corral enough votes in the closely divided Senate to kill the savings accounts. The bill squeaked by on an 8-6 party-line vote in the Committee on Education and Health. If it clears the Senate Finance Committee and wins approval of the full Senate, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, supported by the union, could be the final stumbling block with his veto pen.

Nevertheless, LaRock remains hopeful. “I’m optimistic that our shared desire to help special needs children reach their full potential will motivate our elected leaders to put special needs children ahead of special interests,” he said.

Read more by Kenric Ward at Watchdog.com.

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”


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