Last summer my daughter, a gifted eighth-grader, was diagnosed as having a learning disability. She and I were both apprehensive about her return to Porter Junior High, not knowing how the school and the teachers would help her learn.
Throughout my efforts to assist her, I know Porter can never deny my child the special services and education she deserves. Public schools welcome my daughter and others like her, as is their legal obligation. That's why I am so frightened about Proposition 174.
The proposed state constitutional amendment would offer nothing to California's 540,000 public school children with special needs, from learning disabilities to cerebral palsy. It makes no provision for admitting special-needs children into private schools. Although no schools getting vouchers could discriminate because of race, ethnicity, color or national origin, it says nothing about disability. The only specific mention of these children, who are 10% of the state's public school enrollment, is that "the Legislature may award supplemental funds for reasonable transportation needs for . . . special needs attributable to physical impairment or learning disability." \o7 May \f7 is the operative word here.
The state Department of Education does not track the number of private schools serving only the special-needs population, but the U.S. Department of Education calls the number minuscule. "I personally know of very few private schools that make any accommodations for special-needs children," said Barbara Cull, founder and executive director of the ERA Center for Special Education in Culver City.
The government says 82% of the nearly 25,000 U.S. private schools are religious schools. Religious schools are exempt from access requirements like ramps, elevators and wider bathrooms in the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. That leaves 18% of private schools to choose from.
There are private schools that specialize in educating these kids. But they're expensive, even with a $2,600 voucher. The ERA Center for Special Education costs between $10,000 and $20,000 a year per student. Encino's Landmark West School, for children with learning disabilities, runs upward of $20,000 a year.
With vouchers in hand and no protection from discrimination, enough "normal" students could fill private-school classrooms to eliminate children like my daughter from admission consideration. Special-needs children may be tough to teach, but I can't support the Proposition 174 message that some children are more academically desirable at the expense of those who are educationally more needy.