Ashli McCall: Special-needs students shouldn’t be collateral damage
Published: Friday, August 15, 2014 at 4:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 15, 2014 at 4:26 p.m.
The Florida Education Association (FEA) is trying to take a scholarship away from nearly 2,000 students with significant special needs, including my son Emmil, who has autism. Insultingly, its attorney has referred to us as a “collateral casualty.” If we are casualties, it's because they are making it so.
Indeed, the FEA’s intent to destroy is broader than the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) for students with special needs, which was signed into law six weeks ago as part of a bigger education bill. The teacher's union also wants to dismantle another provision of that bill that expands income limits for a separate, 13-year-old scholarship that will serve roughly 67,000 low-income students this fall; it has been quite busy trying to demolish the educational options that benefit the most vulnerable students in Florida. Of all the people to deprive, why this population?
In March, as lawmakers were considering bills to create the special needs scholarship, the FEA engaged in strident rhetoric, calling it “another scheme to commercialize education” and said it would “blow the doors off public education." FEA vice president Joanne McCall, meanwhile, was testifying in committees against the PLSA bill, at one point calling it “a giant step backward.”
This is one reason I joined five other families last week in asking the court to allow us to intervene in the lawsuit. As a former public school teacher, I take no personal pleasure in being in court on the other side of the state’s largest teacher union. But as a mother who sees this organization actively attempting to snatch away an educational lifeline from my son, I find this lawsuit to be outrageous. Exceptional students are different, not less; our children matter.
The PLSA is a godsend for parents like us, because it collectively gives us the power to provide an education that is tailored to the specific needs of our differently abled children. It's also important to home-schooling families whose special needs students have historically received no services whatsoever. But the FEA's actions seek to undermine this compassionate scholarship, which is targeted at students with one of eight different conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida and cerebral palsy. The law redirects roughly 90 percent of what the state would spend if a child were in a traditional public school and puts the parent in control of how that money can be spent on education. We can use the accounts to pay for a wide array of educational options such as specialists, therapy, curricula, modifications, and more.
Being different doesn't mean requiring less; my son does not get a pass. Ensuring that he is working at a level commensurate with his ability is an arduous task. For Emmil, it means an exhaustive variety of accommodations. The PLSA will allow me to tailor his curriculum to his specific needs, supplement his schoolwork, and provide professionally recommended comprehensive treatment, including cognitive behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavioral analysis, and individual as well as family therapy.
The state set aside enough money to serve roughly 1,800 students for the program's first year, and in just two weeks the applications have already exceeded that number. That’s not surprising to me, a mom whose son has autism. I totally understand the desperation parents feel to provide an appropriate education for their children whose needs are so unique.
These are the kinds of education programs that can make a real difference for a vulnerable population of students, which is why this lawsuit is especially egregious. Learning options – whether they be PLSAs for special needs students, Tax Credit Scholarships for low-income students, or charter schools for all types of students – put parents in the driver’s seat, and no one has a greater desire to see our children succeed than us. To view us as an attack on public education is to deem that parents should have no say, to view the potential benefit to our children as irrelevant in the effort to remain in control, and ultimately to view our very children as a "collateral casualty" in that effort.
To me, learning options are very much a part of public education, and these territorial fights most hurt those who are already hurting the most.
Ashli McCall is a certified teacher in the state of Florida who taught in public and private schools and now home-schools her two children, one of whom has autism. She lives in Tallahassee.
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