This week, for National School Choice Week, IWF is doing a series of Q&As with school choice advocates from around the country. We interviewed mothers who started out advocating for their children and then realized that they needed to do everything they could to empower all families with education freedom.  

You have a long history of advocating for your children with special needs. How can education freedom help students who aren’t being served by the traditional K-12 education system?

I was fortunate that when my public school district didn’t have the services or support my children needed, I was able to afford them privately. But that is not the case for all families, especially in areas with disproportionate income levels. My home district is a perfect example where 9 (of 11) elementary schools are Title I, meaning a significant percentage of the students live in households that do not make a living wage for our area. 

This leaves those students—especially those with special needs—at the mercy of the public education system to first determine what they qualify for and then provide services (if even available). In the event their needs are not met, families are forced to either accept less than their child needs or pursue legal action which is also expensive and time-consuming. All of this wastes precious financial resources and delays services desperately needed during development. 

So the short answer is access to education funding is a significant barrier for families whose children’s needs are not adequately met by their local public schools. Education Freedom would empower parents, guardians, and caregivers to do what is best for their children without financial inequity.

Many parents were frustrated during the lengthy Covid-era school closures. Some spoke up at school board meetings. Others, like you, ran for school board. What did you hope to accomplish by running (successfully!) for school board?

My first goal was to bring a fresh, and unembellished, perspective to the board. Too few board members have school-age children, or even have children at all, and therefore do not live with the consequences of their decisions. At the time of my candidacy, I had two elementary-aged children, who were significantly impacted by remote learning. I faced a school board that was convinced by the Superintendent that they had few legal options (when they actually had the freedom to open) and that parents like me were just inconvenienced by remote learning and therefore eager to dump our kids back at school. 

This was despite evidence from me, families from across our district, and families across our county, who all appealed to these governing bodies for care, compassion, and solutions. I take no satisfaction in the fact that 2+ years later the evidence from our district, our state, and the nation unequivocally proved us to be right on two things: remote learning was a disaster for all students, and it disproportionately impacted minority students or students in financially disadvantaged areas—further widening an existing education gap for those students. 

How can school choice help improve education for all students? 

This is a great question and one that I actually campaigned on, that school choice is true educational equity. One objection to choice is that it will pull resources from the public school system, further straining the existing system. While that is true in that it allows the money to follow the student, it would also allow students to go where they are best served. 

I would counter that objection with the fact that by allowing students to naturally flow to the institution of their choice, the one best suited to meet their needs, you actually lower the strain on public education therefore freeing up more resources to serve the students who remain in public education. The net decrease in funding does not directly correlate to a decrease in the quality of public education and, frankly, would allow the public system to do more with less. Then the public school system doesn’t have to try and be everything to everyone when in reality it can only do so much and therefore has never and will never be everything to everyone. That is the fallacy of the objection to school choice.

What is the school choice myth that frustrates you the most? 

My first answer to this is specific, and unique, to Pennsylvania, and it’s that in PA we are not dependent on the state government to enact education freedom. I learned two years ago in a symposium hosted by Villanova University that in the state of Pennsylvania, it is actually within the purview of each school district to enact school choice. While it is encouraging that our newly elected governor is talking about it, we are actually not at the mercy of his gubernatorial priorities or those of our state legislature to make this happen.

Furthermore, I’m fascinated by our society’s current objection to school choice yet obsession with college loan relief. Because when you talk about college loan relief, what you are talking about is school choice. Go to the institution of your choosing, to study what you want, and then have no financial consequences for that choice to get a degree you are not legally obligated to have.

Attending grades K-12 is legally required. We the People require every minor in this country to attend school, and if you don’t then truancy laws apply. But we collect taxpayer money and refuse to give you choice for an education we require you to have. During your most vulnerable years—when specific development milestones around speech and visual processing lock in by specific ages—we are holding the money hostage. And all this while desperately trying to crack open the Federal piggy bank to help pay the tab on a higher education you may or may not need. That you are not legally required to get. And may or may not lead to actual employment.

To me this is completely backwards, and that if we were to rally around the idea of education freedom—and school choice—we would be preparing our children better for what comes after K-12. 

Families in Pennsylvania have school choice options, but students in many states are trapped in schools that aren’t meeting their needs. What would you advise parents to do when they want education savings accounts or other school choice options for their children?

Children with special needs are often eligible for Medicaid depending on the nature of their condition or disability. One of my children is eligible, though I have chosen to not leverage those resources. His eligibility is based upon a medical diagnosis of a communication disorder. Too often families rely on their intermediate units (IUs) (during early intervention) or their public school (during K-12) to “diagnose” their child when in reality they are not medical experts and therefore only making educational observations and service recommendations.  

Rather than fighting with their IU or public school, even with limited financial resources, getting an official medical diagnosis will often help unlock access to additional resources through Medicaid. It’s not a perfect solution and does not necessarily facilitate school choice, but it can create access to supplemental services that their child might desperately need. Ultimately, what we need to do is to organize our communities, and our states, to take education freedom seriously and contact their local and state governments to pursue legislation that would make resources like an education savings account available in their state or local district. Because every day we wait is a day our children don’t get back, so we all really need to rally around this even if our own children don’t have special education needs. 

To read more about Stacey’s story, check out her profile in our pandemic learning series HERE