The One Question I Would Really Like To Ask Betsy DeVos

by Mary Hickey
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The name Betsy DeVos has incited fear and anger in the hearts of many parents and educators. But none so much as the parents of children with special needs who depend on a solid public school system for their special education. Her ideas and ignorance are terrifying to us. Parents of children who are differently abled are already fighting every day for their children’s educational rights. Any diversion of funding means even less support for children who are already receiving less than they should.

There is no greater pain than watching your child suffer. Even worse is watching your child in distress and being unable to help them or make it better. That is our story. Our son is desperate for help, and we cannot get it for him.

We have been involved in a battle with our town school for over a year and a half over our son’s special education needs. He is a brave and smart young man with a heart of gold. His bravest feat yet is surviving high school, years that are a challenge even for the unchallenged, with the diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, anxiety, depression, and Tourette’s. For a year and half, his needs have not been met at our high school. IEP accommodations have not been given, his regular education teachers don’t communicate with his academic support team, and he has met none of his IEP goals.

His grades have dropped from As and Bs in middle school to now Ds all while supposedly receiving daily academic support. He has been bullied on many occasions, is ostracized daily, and his social and emotional health has spiraled downward. Not long ago I was notified that he was found to be spending his lunch periods in the bathroom. When I asked him why he was doing this, my heart broken at the thought of it, he told me matter of factly, “Well, when I was sitting down at tables with people they were getting up and leaving. So, I would just rather be in there by myself.”

Despite this heart-wrenching reality, he gets up every day and heads to school without protest. Every morning, I watch from the window as walks to our bus stop with his head hanging low, his headphones on and his hood up. Tears fill my eyes as I send my beautiful boy off to face another day of struggles and feeling like a failure.

I recently wrote a document to the town administration listing all the times his IEP was not followed or his rights were violated. It was 18 pages. I have met with his entire school team over 10 times. I have sat down and shared my concerns with his principal and the head of special education in our town. I email staff weekly, sometimes daily, to ensure they are doing any part of what they are supposed to. I have fought tirelessly for him to receive what he needs and what we have been promised with no results.

Nothing has improved. We have requested that he be sent to a private special needs school or a town with a better program that can meet his needs. We have been told no. Despite his severe depression and social isolation, his barely passing grades when he has a superior IQ, and the endless ways big and small that the school has violated his rights, we are told no. Despite having counsel at his meetings and despite going to the top of the administration, we have been told no. Despite having letters from his psychiatrist, psychologist, and his developmental pediatrician stressing that this a child at risk and demanding that he be immediately moved to a school that will meet his needs, we are told no.

At a recent IEP meeting I was told by the team chair, “The bottom line is that we are meeting his needs. He comes to school each day and is not failing out and that is all we are required to do.” We are stuck. We have a school that is unable to work harder to provide what our child needs or follow his IEP. We know that he cannot stay where he is and come out unscathed, but there is nowhere else for him to go.

When people hear our story, they all say the same things. “They can’t do that!” “That’s awful!” “Your son has rights!” “Fight harder!” Or my favorite, “Why don’t you send him somewhere else?”

My response is always the same: “Where exactly would that be?” My son’s rights would matter even less in a private school that does not have to follow state and federal education laws. Private schools have minimal resources for special education students. All of this of course is a moot point, however. The reality is that my child, with his poor grades and endless list of challenges, will simply not be accepted in the first place.

Charter schools are also poorly equipped to deal with children with special needs. They too do not have the resources for this growing population. And although technically required to follow education laws and not discriminate upon admission, there are a plethora of families who from their experiences will tell you otherwise.

We have lived in this town for over 13 years. We have three other children who are settled and happy with their lives here. And surprisingly, our town has a reputation of being one of the more accommodating school systems for children with special needs. If we move to another town, we will have sacrificed the happiness of three other children without even knowing if it will be better for our oldest son. It could be worse.

Private schools for children with special needs charge privately paying families upwards of $70,000 a year. Most do not provide financial aid and do not even accept inquiries about their programs unless the request has been made through your town. I am quite certain that the voucher options proposed by our new secretary of education will not be helpful with these schools. That would be like someone thinking that you could now afford a Lamborghini with your middle-class income because they gave you a 10% off coupon.

Our goal was never for our child to attend a private special needs school. We believe in public education. We value the diversity, the dedicated teachers, and the acceptance of all children, religions, and cultures. However, public schools are strained in providing special education services to the growing population of children with these needs. Teachers don’t have the time or flexibility to help students in the ways they wish they could. There is less room for creative approaches when there are curriculum demands to be met. Budget cuts don’t leave room for public school systems to create new programs that would better serve special education children in their own towns and schools.

The result is that our children are left with less than ideal support and nowhere else to go. So now we are headed on the path to court. The strain this entire nightmare has placed on our family is immeasurable. Soon there will be lawyer fees, more stress, and a child who continues to suffer and each day believes in himself a little less.

The appointment of Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education could not come at a worse time for our family and many others. She has no knowledge of what a day in the life of a child in special education is like. She does not even know the laws that protect the little rights they do have. And in particular, she has no idea how trapped children with special needs are in the education system.

She is about choices for children’s educations. Instead of improving the current public school system which accommodates all religions, all types of families, all socioeconomic levels, and all abilities, she will divert funds from their already struggling budgets for vouchers. Vouchers for private and charter schools who are not the most welcoming to different faiths or beliefs, struggling families, or children with special needs.

She says that families deserve choices. The reality is that the children who need the most from their education have the least amount of options, and this will not improve that. They are dependent on a well-funded public school system to meet their needs because they are often not welcome anywhere else.

What good will a voucher be for my son when there is nowhere else for him to go? How will a voucher that he cannot use but that takes away from the only school he can attend help my child? We cannot expect the schools that are already struggling to serve this vulnerable population to do their job with further diversions in funding. So please, Betsy DeVos, answer the question that keeps me and every other special needs parent up at night. What choices will my child have?