Virginia’s Special Education Children Need School Choice

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This article was written by Shawnna Yashar and published by the Fairfax Times on November 1, 2021.

Dear Editor –

This week, my husband and I had our son’s parent teacher conference. He’s reading at a first-grade level. He’s 9 and should be in 4th grade.   

Private testing diagnosed him with dyslexia in August 2020. We got him an Individual Education Plan (IEP) with Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and found a private dyslexia tutor for the 2020-21 school year, which was mostly virtual until April. Virtual instruction is incredibly ineffective for special education kids. For young dyslexics, the techniques involve multi-sensory instruction which cannot be replicated remotely.   

In June 2021, FCPS reported that our son was on grade level and would not receive much special education instruction in the coming school year. Our parental instincts knew this wasn’t right. So, we made the difficult and financially burdensome choice to enroll him in private school.  

We are lucky. We found a specialized school, with an opening, and were able to adjust our standard of living to accommodate the shocking tuition price tag. Virginia is ranked 9th for cost of K-12 private education  and schools focused on special needs are significantly more expensive. In 2020, the Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) found that the annual tuition rates for private special education ranged from $22,000 to $97,000. The majority of special education families can’t afford this and the public schools are not equipped to provide services.     

FCPS was awarded $188.6 million in federal grants under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) III. A survey conducted by FCPS found that the community wants nearly 90% of the ESSER III funds allocated to unfinished learning, academic and mental health support with $46 million carved out for special education.  But instead, FCPS is using a significant amount of those funds on Covid-19 surveillance testing scheduled to begin in November. During the October 19, 2021 FCPS School Board Work Session, Board members Karen Corbett Sanders and Laura Jane Cohen expressed concerns that surveillance testing could deplete FCPS’ ESSER III funds by hundreds of thousands of dollars per day.  

Special education has taken a back seat for far too long in Virginia. Glenn Youngkin has promised to work with the Virginia legislature on school choice initiatives including a specific focus on special education. Special education funding was the subject of a narrowly tailored school choice bill passed by Virginia’s legislature in 2016, but Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.   

Having education funding follow the child would put special education parents in the driver seat enabling them to afford costly intervention therapies not provided by the public schools. Parents want money for academics, not surveillance testing. Parents know what is best for their children. It’s time to give them the wheel.