Children with special needs whose parents are in the Armed Services may soon be eligible for school-choice scholarships. On June 4, 2010, the Senate introduced its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (S. 3554), which authorizes the Department of Defense (DoD) to create a pilot scholarship program for military dependent children who have special education needs. (See Sec. 583, beginning on p. 191). Beginning in the 2011-12 school year, eligible students could use scholarships worth $7,500 to attend any district or charter public school as well as any private school of their parents’ choice.

This would be an important public-policy step since military students have higher rates of special needs, 13 percent compared to 11.5 percent of the general student population nationwide. Yet two weeks after the pilot program’s introduction, the National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE) began distributing fliers to U.S. Senators claiming, among other things, the pilot program is unnecessary, costly, and would not help children. Empirical evidence and the experiences of parents suggest otherwise.

Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, and Utah currently have special-needs scholarship programs enrolling nearly 25,000 students. This year Louisiana and Oklahoma approved new special needs scholarship programs with bipartisan support that will be operational in the 2010-11 school year. Combined, existing special-needs scholarship programs receive $168 million in state and local funding, which works out to an approximate average scholarship amount of $6,847. (Summary compiled by the American Federation for Children). Military parents like Jeremy and Renae Hilton could certainly use programs like these.

Renae is in the Air Force and Jeremy Hilton is a former Navy submariner who gave up his career to care for his daughter, Kate, who is seven and has hydrocephalus and associated issues.  Military families move every two years on average, which is especially hard on children with special needs. Mr. Hilton was asked to respond to the NCPE’s attack against the Senate’s special-needs scholarship program. “From 2004 through 2008, due to two deployments and three changes of station,” explained Mr. Hilton, “our family moved five times, across four states and four different school districts.” When the Hilton family moved from Texas to Alabama, Kate’s new school district cut her preschool Individualized Education Program (IEP) and services in half. “Military families have little to no control over where they will be stationed,” according to Mr. Hilton, who described his family’s ordeal:

Some school districts make decisions not to provide appropriate services because they understand the procedural safeguards are stacked against the parents, even more so when they understand that a military family most likely will be moving shortly and unable to effectively hold them accountable for the services they don’t provide. Our understanding of the system in Alabama was that the school superintendent had made a conscious decision…not to work with parents until such time as they were able to show that they could hire a lawyer and expert witnesses to take their case through due process…We (and the school district) knew we would only be there for ten months and went without an appropriate education for our daughter for that period. (For more stories from military parents, see here.)

In contrast, parents of special-needs students participating in Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, the country’s largest with nearly 21,000 students, were more satisfied with their children’s chosen schools compared to their previous assigned schools, 93 percent compared to 33 percent. Fully 86 percent of McKay parents report their special-needs children receive all the services required under federal law from their children’s chosen school compared to just 30 percent of special-needs parents with children in assigned public schools. McKay parents also report their special-needs children are victimized dramatically less, have smaller classes, and demonstrate far fewer behavioral problems.

Hopefully, Senators will side with the children and their parents who’ve sacrificed so much for their country instead of interest groups pushing recycled talking points from a by-gone era.