Arguments for funding special education may have other parallels

Last week a U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling in D.L. v. Baltimore City Board of School Commoners that curtails the access of special education services for children who attend private and parochial schools. In much of the country, including New Jersey, special needs kids are eligible for services like speech, occupational, and physical therapy at the expense of their local school districts, regardless of where they attend school. This recent decision only effects Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, but it sets a precedent that challenges standard practice here at home.

In this case, a boy (D.L.) was diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) while attending a yeshiva, a private Jewish school. His parents requested that the local public school perform evaluations to determine if D.L. was eligible for special education services. The public school found that D.L. was indeed eligible but denied him services because he wasn’t enrolled there. His parents filed a complaint, arguing that the denial infringed on their son’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and, in addition, posed an economic hardship on his family, who had to pay for necessary services.

No dice, deemed the judges.  They ruled that the denial of services did not “offend D.L.’s constitutional rights” just because it might cause an “economic disadvantage on individuals who choose to practice their religion in a specific manner.” The ruling also stated that  the school board should not be required to “serve up its publicly funded services like a buffet from which [parents] can pick and choose.”

That’s not how it works in much of the country, including New Jersey. Here, children with disabilities are eligible for special education services regardless of whether they’re enrolled in their local public school.One example of this is Lakewood Public Schools (Ocean County).  In Lakewood, more than half the residents are Orthodox Jews and most send their kids to private yeshivas, just like D.L.’s parents. The public school district, which educates less than 5,000 kids (almost all Hispanic) out of a population of about 25,000 children, spends at least 10% of its annual $1.1 million annual budget on special education services for children enrolled full-time at private yeshivas.

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But those Lakewood parents pay property and income taxes, which is how Jersey funds its schools. Shouldn’t kids with disabilities have access to services that their parents subsidize? (The federal government is technically supposed to foot 40% of special education costs, but never has; currently it chips in about 17%.)

The acceleration of the “school choice movement” is often cited as a positive development in American education. Some regard a menu of school choices, both public and private, as a powerful tool, particularly for kids consigned to chronically failing districts. Paying private school tuition is a choice usually reserved for upper-income parents, but it’s one of our forms of school choice, albeit one not available to all. Should this particular choice preclude necessary services for special needs kids?

The consensus in NJ seems to be that kids with disabilities are entitled to the services they need for academic growth, regardless of location. So, how much of a leap is it from our tacit agreement on providing special needs services in private settings to a controversial bill, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, currently on life support in the Statehouse?  The bill proposes providing corporate-sponsored scholarships to private and parochial schools for poor children in the worst urban districts. 

 Teacher unions and other lobbying groups oppose the bill.  Yet one could argue that impoverished kids in failing districts like Camden and Trenton should have the right, like kids with disabilities, to receive compensatory services in a private environment. After all, NJ schools considered substandard are referred to as “Special Needs Districts.”

The Baltimore case erects a wall between private and public schools. In New Jersey, no such wall exists, at least for kids with disabilities. The quesstion is, how far are we willing to go? 


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