Helping Our Troops and Their Families

Children with special needs whose parents are in the Armed Services may soon be eligible for academic opportunity scholarships. Unfortunately, the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE) is mounting a militant campaign against opportunities for those children.

The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2011 (S. 3554) authorizes the Defense Department to create a pilot scholarship program for military dependent children who have special education needs. Beginning in the 2011-12 school year, eligible students could use scholarships worth $7,500 to attend any district or charter public school as well as any private school of their parents’ choice. This would be a much-needed policy improvement.

Military students have higher rates of special-education needs compared to the general student population, 13% compared to 11.5%. Military families also move to locations based primarily on the needs of the service, and their education options are largely constrained to public schools where they are stationed.

When those schools cannot provide the appropriate education for their children, military parents have few viable options. They can hire attorneys and fight for private placements, which are permissible under federal law; struggle to pay for private schools and specialized services themselves; or keep their children in sub-par special-education programs until they are stationed elsewhere.

Within two weeks of the pilot program’s introduction, the NCPE began distributing fliers to senators claiming, among other things, that academic opportunity scholarships for military dependents with special needs are unnecessary, costly, and would not help children. Empirical evidence and the experiences of parents suggest otherwise.

Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah currently have special-needs scholarship programs enrolling nearly 25,000 students combined. This year Louisiana and Oklahoma approved new special-needs scholarship programs with bipartisan support that will be operational in the 2010-11 school year. Existing special-needs scholarship programs receive $168 million in state and local funding, which works out to scholarships averaging $6,847.

Military parents like Jeremy and Renae Hilton could certainly use programs like these. Mrs. Hilton is in the Air Force, and Mr. Hilton is a former Navy submariner and a stay-at-home dad to his daughter, Kate, who is seven and has hydrocephalus.

Military families move every two years on average, which is especially hard on children with special needs. In response to the NCPE’s claims that public schools already meet the needs of military students, Mr. Hilton explained, “From 2004 through 2008, due to two deployments and three changes of station, our family moved five times, across four states and four different school districts.”

When the Hilton family moved from Texas to Alabama, Kate’s new school district cut her preschool Individualized Education Program (IEP) and services in half. “Military families have little to no control over where they will be stationed,” according to Mr. Hilton, who described his family’s ordeal:

“Some school districts make decisions not to provide appropriate services because they understand the procedural safeguards are stacked against the parents, even more so when they understand that a military family most likely will be moving shortly and unable to effectively hold them accountable for the services they don’t provide. Our understanding of the system in Alabama was that the school superintendent had made a conscious decision … not to work with parents until such time as they were able to show that they could hire a lawyer and expert witnesses to take their case through due process … We and the school district knew we would only be there for ten months and went without an appropriate education for our daughter for that period.”

In contrast, parents of special-needs students participating in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, the country’s largest with nearly 21,000 students, were more satisfied with their children’s chosen schools overall compared to their previous schools, 93% compared to 33%.
Fully 86% of McKay parents report their special-needs children receive all the services required under federal law from their children’s chosen schools, compared to just 30% at their previous schools. McKay parents also report their special-needs children are victimized dramatically less, have smaller classes, and demonstrate far fewer behavioral problems in their chosen schools.

Opposition to academic opportunity scholarships from the NCPE is understandable, predictable, and completely without significance. Senators should side with the parents and children who’ve sacrificed so much for their country.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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