Public education is poised on a crumbling precipice

You should probably go with TCAPS.

Six and a half years ago, a teacher at the Catholic school system in my small town of Traverse City, Mich., so advised my husband and me as we considered where to enroll our autistic son for kindergarten.

At the time, I was grateful for her frankness. After all, in recommending TCAPS (Traverse City Area Public Schools) she was steering away potential tuition dollars. Remembering it today, in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of vocal charter school and voucher proponent Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education, I am terrified.

I ascribed benevolent intent to that teacher’s advice, and still have no reason to doubt she had our son’s best interests at heart. But there’s an equally frank truth about private schools, broken-pencil1whether denominational or secular – they don’t have to take you.

Let the parents decide! Keep the dollars in your pocket and away from Big Education. That’s the spin from charter and voucher advocates. It’s a simplistic PR line that overlooks the problem that arises when you’re a high-needs kid, like many in special education, whose choices are limited by their needs. Outside public schools, there is no place that has to offer an open door to the multiple expensive, challenging-to-deliver support services – otherwise known as a FAPE, Free and Adequate Public Education.

Public schools have already felt the financial hit of students jumping ship to charters with a mixed record, often less well-regulated, less transparent and less capable. If DeVos gets her way with vouchers – and after Trump campaigned on it, there’s no reason to believe she won’t — public schools could be hollowed out to only the most vulnerable. The kids who don’t have other choices. In addition to being financially unsustainable, it would limit the opportunities for inclusion with peers, one of the most important aspects of our son’s education.

Six and a half years ago, I was grateful for that teacher’s advice. Today, I’m grateful we took it. TCAPS, and specifically my son’s school, has teachers who text us with questions, check-ins and field trip photos. Who arrange substitutes so they can work together to devise success strategies. Who got more excited than we did at the results of his latest standardized tests.

It has not been perfect. Twice, in fact, we faced situations where we wondered if we were in the right place. I am keenly conscientious of the fact that at both those times, we still got to decide whether to stay or go. At a private school, it could have been decided for us.

I also know other special education parents whose public school experience has been less positive. However, I am highly skeptical that even the $20 billion Trump has dangled would appreciably improve their options. With a $20 billion windfall headed their way, what’s to stop private schools from hiking tuition correspondingly? (They could regulate to prevent that, at least at the outset, but that’s not likely, either.) Meanwhile, vouchers and for-profit schools and the like risk eroding not only the bricks and mortar but also morale and motivation of those who have nurtured my son academically, socially and behaviorally into the thriving fifth grader he is today.

You should probably go with TCAPS. I can’t stop hearing that repeat in my head. But after four years of DeVos and Trump, TCAPS as I know it might not be around to suggest.

Other opinions on DeVos and disabilities:

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