Like most parents, Clare Murray grew up in a world where the local public school was the only choice. But when her son had issues that required more specialized attention, one educational option was not enough.
Murray and tens of thousands of other Florida families take advantage of the state's McKay Scholarship Program, which allows parents to use the state funding allocated to their child to find the best educational fit for that child.
"As products of public school educations ourselves, my husband and I had always planned to send our son to public schools," said Murray. "It would have been a disservice to him, however, to not take advantage of the McKay Scholarship. There is simply no way our son … would have been able to receive the same level of education and individualized attention in a public middle school in our area."
Jay Marcus, another parent of a McKay Scholarship child, faced a similar situation.
"It is simply a fact that the Florida public school system was not equipped to provide my daughter the attention and focus that she required based on her learning disabilities. Although her teachers were wonderful, the teaching methods available to them were not conducive to my daughter's learning needs," Marcus said.
Stories like these are common throughout Florida and the country. But attacks on school choice instead focus on contrived "public vs. private" disputes that do not reflect the real-world personal decisions of parents searching for the right schooling environment for their child.
A New York Times article, "Special Ed School Vouchers May Come With Hidden Costs," claims that parents who have chosen a different path for their child with a McKay Scholarship are being stripped of the rights afforded to them in a public school via the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. or IDEA.
The story misses the simple fact that this is a program to help parents pursue other options for schooling when the public system isn't working for their child. If parents are satisfied with the services and federal regulations required in public schools, then they would have no reason to make the considerable effort to leave.
For most parents, their locally zoned public school is working great — something our nation should be proud of. But for many, the option presented to them was not working.
"IDEA 'rights' are meaningless if the school system cannot provide the facilities for your child, or has historically demonstrated failure to service special needs students," said April Alder, whose child benefits from a McKay Scholarship.
The IDEA law itself recognizes that no single public school can serve every child. A provision in the law allows parents to seek a private school placement for their child at district expense if the district cannot provide an appropriate education. Unfortunately, this option usually requires up-front tuition payments from parents, years of waiting and potentially expensive legal action.
This was the scenario in Endrew vs. Douglas County, the case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in which a Colorado family sued after a school district refused to support a private education for a child with autism when the public school system couldn't provide for those unique needs.
There is a lot of room between passing laws in Washington and implementing them in the nation's 100,000 public schools. Jay Marcus said the federal regulations "made additional services available to my daughter in the public school setting. Unfortunately, these services were more focused on the completion of the required paperwork than they were in finding creative and beneficial ways for my daughter to learn and participate in classroom setting."
Framing the argument as "either/or" misses the point that school choice inherently tries to address: Each child is different, with different needs.
We should work to increase choices, create transparency of options, provide accurate information to parents and improve all sectors of education instead of focusing on promoting one over the other. Parents can have great experiences in public and private schools — but only if they have the option to explore both and choose what's best for their child.
"Public school teachers are often too overtaxed and unequipped to intervene on the child's behalf," said Alder. "I only wish parents were more informed about the value of the McKay. Since entering the private school, our child has surpassed all of the social and academic expectations we had for him. He is proof the system works."
Patricia Levesque is the chief executive officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.