Opinion and Forefront

FERGUSON: Reform overlooks special-needs children

September 24, 2011

Margaret FergusonIn all the conversation about reforming Indiana schools, the education of children with special needs has been all but forgotten.

For the parents of children with special needs, the pursuit of an adequate education for our children often amounts to a full-time job. Each of us eventually ends up feeling we have to wage a battle with the public school to get our children what they need and many of us finally give up and try to find different means to educate our children.

Though we are a society that supposedly values education, we are miserably failing a very vulnerable element of our young people.

Let me be clear. I am the product of the public schools. My mother is a retired elementary schoolteacher. I am a proud downtown resident who advocates for the good to be found in the often-maligned IPS schools. I am, in short, a believer in public education.

So giving up on the possibility that my son would be welcomed, nurtured and taught in the school that my tax money goes to support came as a painful blow.

And I didn’t go down without a fight.

I enrolled my son in developmental preschool and then kindergarten. He attended three IPS schools (though we have resided at the same address his entire life).

To be fair, I ran across wonderful people along the way who worked hard with limited resources to fulfill the needs of all the children. However, these people were few and far between, and the system does not appear to be designed to support my son, though the school system gets resources from the federal government for the education of children like him.

In a telling exchange, an education expert at a local advocacy group with whom I spoke reported that she home-schooled her children with special needs. This is not at all uncommon.

She did reluctantly recommend one school—a charter school about which she had heard good things.

A similar phone call to my son’s occupational therapist also was disconcerting. Though she works with children from across the Indianapolis area, she couldn’t name a single school in any of the local districts that she could confidently report does a good job of working with children with special needs.

This year, IPS opened a charter school specifically for children with special needs. It filled up immediately and there is now a wait list. It hasn’t been around long enough to assess its performance. But its popularity speaks to the need.

The governor’s voucher program might help children like my son attend private schools that are willing and able to work with children with special needs. But these schools are few in number and expensive enough that most people wouldn’t be able to afford them with a voucher, and many of us aren’t eligible for the voucher program, anyway.

More to the point, the public schools should be providing my son and children like him the education he deserves.

Public schools face a crisis on many fronts. But the education of children with special needs represents a crisis within a crisis that is routinely overlooked by pundits and lawmakers.

For now, I am managing to afford a private school dedicated to working with children like my son. Unlike many parents who place their children in private school, I want my son to attend a public school. I tried hard to find a school that would suit his needs. I was willing to put my time and talents to work to support the teachers and administrators of whatever school my son attended.

But I was repeatedly made to feel that my son didn’t deserve a place at the table with “typical” children. Not even in the place that is theoretically bound to serve all of Indiana’s children.•

• Ferguson is an associate professor of political science in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI with expertise in state politics. Views expressed here are the writer’s. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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