Using Special Education Reforms as a Model

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The Washington Post editorializes today on the confluence of two education stories. First, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments today on Forest Grove v. T.A., which considers whether parents of children with disabilities have the right to enroll their child in private special ed schools at public expense without first trying out a public placement. Second, the agonies of the D.C. voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allows parents of poor kids to use public money to pay tuition at private schools. Says the Post,

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not arguing for the unilateral right of parents to enroll their sons and daughters in any school they wish with the taxpayer picking up the tab. Abuse of special-education provisions has contributed to escalating costs that threaten to take needed money from general public education funds. Safeguards are needed. Public schools should be pressed to do a better job for students with disabilities and students without. But there are schools in Washington where statistics show that failure is almost guaranteed. If a school system can’t educate a child — whether because of acute special needs or its own historical failings — why should that child not have options for a “free appropriate public education”?

In other words, do children with impoverished backgrounds have the same rights as children with disabilities? Is poverty a kind of disability? Remember that special education advocates in the 1970’s modeled their movement, which resulted in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, after the Civil Rights movement. Maybe the next movement will be the reformist attempts to reshape our educational system to address the inequities engendered by wealth.

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