My kid is That Kid.

That is a common admission found on Facebook support groups for parents of students with special needs. It’s our heart-wrenching acknowledgement that our beautiful, amazing, frustrating and frustrated child is struggling at home, in peer relationships, and in school. Online discussions groups reveal that we’re not alone – many of our children are poorly served and absolutely miserable at schools that are unwilling or unable to meet their needs.

A parent recently posted, “My kiddo has combined type of ADHD, ODD, and anxiety, and public school has been a HUGE struggle for him. It’s at the point with school that I’m constantly getting calls to come and pick him up.” A community member responded, “It’s a battle every single year to fight for my son and the school system. Never give up and always be diligent!” Countless posts share advice about preparing for school meetings, hiring advocates, and seeking educational options outside of the traditional public school system.

Yet policy “experts” tell us that district schools are the best, safest place for our vulnerable children. We’re told that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that has not been updated since 2004, guarantees a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), so our children will be just fine. Many defenders of the educational status quo claim that the public school system provides the only high-quality option for our children.

Policy “experts”: stop perpetuating these myths. You are harming fragile students and creating an unbearable hardship for desperate parents who feel trapped in a system that is failing their children.

The truth? Many parents are voluntarily choosing to leave the traditional public school system to educate their special needs child at home or enroll in a private school. Parents cover the cost of educating their child on their own, by suing the districts to pay for tuition, or by participating in private school choice scholarship programs.

In fact, 73,000 children with special needs this school year are utilizing one of the 21 private school choice programs dedicated for those students. According to Survey of the McKay Scholarship families in Florida, the largest of these state programs, students are thriving.  “Participating students were victimized far less by other students because of their disabilities in McKay schools,” the survey found. “In public schools, 46.8% were bothered often and 24.7% were physically assaulted, while in McKay schools 5.3% were bothered often and 6.0% were assaulted.”

Defenders of the status quo disingenuously claim that families “give up their rights under IDEA” when they go to a private school. In truth, families often choose to leave the public school because the school district was not providing the student with adequate, if any, services or accommodations.

“IDEA rights” is a meaningless phrase to families struggling to ensure their child receives services. Another McKay Scholarship family survey response found that, “only 30.2% of current participants say they received all services required under federal law from their public school, while 86.0% report their McKay school has provided all the services they promised to provide.”

Obviously, a family choosing to place their child in a private school retains the right to return to the public school and fight once again for access to services “guaranteed” by IDEA. Additionally, under IDEA, private school students with disabilities can still receive district-funded services and transportation. Under IDEA’s equitable services provisions, parentally placed children in private schools can still “meaningfully participate in special education and related services” provided by the school district.

According to U.S. Department of Education guidance, districts must spend “a proportionate share” of federal IDEA funds on equitable services for parentally placed private school children with disabilities. Rather than an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), parentally placed private school students with disabilities have a services plan with the school district “describing the specific special education and/or related services that the LEA will provide to the child.” 

Even the most carefully crafted IEP or services plan do not ensure that districts will provide students with adequate instruction, accommodations or services. The Supreme Court ruled in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) that schools must provide students with special needs more than a de minimis, or minimal, educational benefit. The decision stated that the child’s IEP should be, “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” It’s distressing that districts argued in court for providing minimal educational benefit and, despite the ruling, unlikely that this long-established culture will change soon.

Rather than pontificating about the ideals of IDEA, an outdated federal law, school choice opponents must listen to parents. From an online forum, “We’ve been pushed from school to school. We’ve been ostracized from our community. I have to drive her 45 minutes to a whole different community to get an education. And the thing is, she was “that kid” because of the way she was being treated. Her explosiveness was a reaction to mistreatment. To teachers always assuming she did wrong. To kids manipulating and mocking her. She was isolated in a room by herself in the last school. “Unfit” to be with the “good kids” they said.”

Let’s agree that students and parents deserve better. Let’s empower families with the option to choose a school that meets their incredible, infuriating, and wonderful child’s needs.