Although the debate over school choice has been raging for years, it wasn’t something I paid attention to. I had always assumed that my children would attend the local public school. I attended a rural public school where I enjoyed qualified teachers and went to college well-prepared to succeed.
The thought of private or home school never entered my mind when planning for the educational journeys of my children. My oldest child entered the public school system at the age of three. He was accepted into an ABC preschool program on the basis of his autism diagnosis. In conjunction with private out-patient therapy, I was satisfied with the quality of his services and his teachers went beyond what was required to engage him in the classroom.
Although his experience in public school had been positive, he had made very little progress and was, in fact, falling further behind his typical peers. He had an aide, as much therapy as the public school could provide, and a great group of classroom and resource teachers. Many children were and are thriving with the services provided for special needs children in our public schools. Still, my child was not making progress.
He remained in the public school setting until the end of his second grade year when I had the opportunity to move to Little Rock. I had heard about Access Academy through a friend and began researching the school prior to my move. I found out that my son would receive four times the amount of speech, occupational, and physical therapy than he had been eligible to receive at his public school. He would also be in a classroom with a licensed special education teacher, an aide, and a speech therapist and only nine other kids, so the ratio was much lower than we were accustomed to. I also learned that the curriculum was developed specifically for children with learning delays.
The choice to enroll my son at Access was easy. I had to take the opportunity to help him succeed. At the least, we would give it a try with the option of re-entering the public school system if he did not begin to show gains.
What wasn’t easy was going from a free public education to paying private school tuition. At the time, I was a recently single mother caring for three small children with no support. My younger two children were still in daycare and the cost of three tuitions consumed the majority of my income.
In 2015, the Arkansas legislature passed its very first private school choice bill creating the Succeed Scholarship. It is a program that allows children with special needs to receive up to $6,700 to use for private school tuition and fees. I applied for the Succeed Scholarship, but we were denied because Access did not have the required accreditation.
Although I was passionate about providing this opportunity to my son, I was unsure if I could maintain his enrollment due to the out-of-pocket expense. Thankfully, in the 2017 legislative session, an amendment was made that allowed schools in process of gaining accreditation to participate. The scholarship will not cover the entire cost of my son’s tuition, but it makes affordable the choice to send him to a school that specializes in educating children with diverse special needs.
I support the Succeed Scholarship program not because it made it possible for my child to attend a school that was more appropriate for his needs; I am fortunate enough to have the income to pay the tuition, even though it created a financial strain.
The reason I am supportive is that I believe that all families deserve the flexibility to make decisions about what is best for their special needs child. In my experience, parents of special needs children are not looking for fewer supports, lower standards, or a watered down curriculum. Quite the contrary, they search, scramble, beg, and go into debt to ensure that their child has every resource available. The Succeed Scholarship makes it possible for families, who couldn’t otherwise afford it, to place their child in a private school designed just for them.
Editor’s note: Dr. Maria Markham is a mother and the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. The opinions expressed are those of the author.