‘endrew f.’ plaintiffs speak out

Parents of Colorado student to Betsy DeVos: We are not a ‘poster child’ for your school choice agenda

PHOTO: Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat
Betsy DeVos, center, at Denver's Firefly Autism House.

Jennifer and Joe, a Douglas County couple whose teenage son attends a private school for students with autism, don’t want to be portrayed as a school choice success story.

But that’s exactly how they feel they were represented during a high-profile visit to the Denver school this fall by the nation’s top education official, Betsy DeVos.

The U.S. secretary of education, known for her support of charter schools and private school vouchers, didn’t name the Douglas County couple during her September speech to reporters, parents and school staff. But she talked about the landmark special education case they’d brought against their suburban Denver school district — the same district embroiled in a separate court battle over its plan to offer private school vouchers.

She described how the couple had pulled their son Endrew out of public school and placed him at Firefly Autism House, where he’d thrived.

“The district essentially dared them to sue, so they did and they won,” DeVos told the audience. “Endrew’s parents showed courage in rejecting the low bar set for their son.”

DeVos never mentioned vouchers directly, but her plug for school choice — with Joe, Jennifer and their son Endrew as protagonists — was clear.

“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”

Jennifer and Joe, who asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy, said in an interview with Chalkbeat that DeVos used their case to further her school choice agenda.

“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.

“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”

Liz Hill, U.S. Department of Education press secretary, responded via email to a request for DeVos’s response to Jennifer and Joe’s concerns.

She wrote, “Secretary DeVos appreciates and admires the courageous commitment Endrew F’s parents demonstrated to ensure their son received an education that met his individual and unique needs. They are but one of thousands of families across the nation who are fighting to get a better education for their children. The secretary stands with all parents who want the best for their children.”

With the recent election of four Douglas County school board candidates who oppose vouchers, it’s likely the district’s voucher program will never launch. Still, DeVos has voiced support for expanding voucher programs and putting federal funds toward them.

DeVos’s public words were particularly hard to take, Jennifer and Joe said, because they had met with the education secretary privately at her request. They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.

First, the dollar amount of most voucher programs is paltry compared to what it costs to pay for specialized private schools like Firefly. Tuition there is more than $70,000 a year.

“Say, there was a voucher system in place and let’s pick $5,000.” Jennifer said. “That’s not enough for placement at Firefly. It doesn’t do anything.”

Jennifer and Joe, who own a company that sells industrial equipment, pay around half of Firefly’s tuition and their health insurance pays the rest, they said.

A 2016 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national membership organization, highlighted the potential for such inequities.

“Voucher funding is rarely sufficient and generally does not cover the full cost of the child’s education, meaning that only parents with adequate finances truly have a choice,” the report states.

Selene Almazan, legal director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and co-author of the report, said her organization has not taken a position on vouchers — some of its parent members are very happy using them — but has researched members’ concerns about them.

The report found the median amount of vouchers is $5,000 to $7,000, with a low of $2,000 in Mississippi and a high of $27,000 in Ohio for a student with autism.

Douglas County’s voucher program, which was put on hold because of the legal challenges, would have allowed vouchers worth 75 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding, or about $5,000.

There’s another key issue at stake in the conversation about vouchers for students with disabilities — one Jennifer and Joe asked DeVos about during their private conversation.

Do students with disabilities lose their rights to a fair and appropriate education — a guarantee under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — if they use vouchers to attend private schools?

Yes, DeVos said.

“She answered point blank,” Joe said.

While Joe and Jennifer say they were talking about the issue in the context of Florida’s voucher program, experts say the loss of rights occurs in a number of states and oftentimes parents are in the dark.

Such rules mean that families “don’t have a right to challenge the services they’re going to be receiving in private school,” said Almazan.

In other words, the legal battle Jennifer and Joe successfully fought after Endrew’s progress stalled in public school would be impossible under the rules of many private school voucher programs.

DeVos’s public responses to questions about the issue have focused on the implications under a federal voucher program, if one were launched. During Senate subcommittee testimony about a proposed federal voucher program last summer, DeVos said schools receiving federal funds must follow federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But she has also praised existing state programs that do require students to give up most IDEA rights.

Almazan said the loss of rights stems from a provision that was included in the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA that says students who are “parentally placed” in private schools aren’t entitled to a free and appropriate education as promised by the 1975 education law. Nationwide, a number of voucher programs, including the one crafted by Douglas County School District, classify voucher-using students as parentally placed and thus their rights under the federal law are revoked.

In response to questions from Chalkbeat, U.S. Department of Education officials agreed that protections under IDEA do change for students using state vouchers, but that they are still eligible for certain services, including a consultation between the public school district and the private school about special education services.

Jennifer and Joe said DeVos told them families get their rights back if they return to public school after using a voucher. Still, given that families often leave public school because they are dissatisfied with the program, returning in order to reclaim their rights doesn’t make sense, they say.

“It seems like a lose-lose to me,” Jennifer said.

“I’m not theoretically opposed to vouchers, but … I don’t think it has any place in special needs education,” Joe said.

Jennifer and Joe had only a brief period to meet with DeVos so there’s at least one thing they didn’t get a chance to explain.

That is, why private school — even one as good as Firefly — was never their first choice for Endrew. Unlike the local public schools, which are close enough to see from their Highlands Ranch home, the private school is a 25 minute drive away.

Firefly, “has been immeasurably helpful and good for him and for our family,” Jennifer said. “But he’s missed out on all of those years of friendship and growth with all of his peers in his neighborhood.”

hot off the presses

A silver medal for Detroit pre-K. Now where are the kids?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Detroit has earned a silver rating, the second-highest possible, in a national ranking of urban preschool programs published Wednesday. But the report by the advocacy group CityHealth also says that too few eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled.

CityHealth, a foundation-funded organization that rates America’s largest urban centers based on their public policies, looked at how big cities stack up in offering preschool programs in a report published Wednesday.

Researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University conducted the study and compiled the report.

Following standards set by the largest state-funded pre-K organization, the Great Start Readiness Program, Detroit requires teachers in state preschool to have at least a bachelor’s degree, limits class sizes, and requires health screenings of children.

Those are some of the hallmarks of a high-quality program, according to CityHealth.

Only eight of the 40 cities whose policies were reviewed earned a silver rating, and only five earned the top gold rating. A handful of cities — Indianapolis and Phoenix, Arizona, among them — were far behind, with low enrollment and few or none of CityHealth’s model policies in place.

Still, the gap in Detroit’s pre-K system is a big one. The city has far fewer pre-K seats than it reportedly needs. That’s the case in many of America’s largest cities, according to CityHealth. In nearly half of the cities studied, pre-K programs reached less than one-third of the cities’ pre-schoolers.

The lack of preschool slots is one reason advocates from Michigan’s largest cities are pushing lawmakers to put early childhood on the agenda in Lansing. And it’s part of why Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has gotten behind the idea of a expanded pre-K system for Detroit.

Read the full report here:

School Funding 101

Report: Michigan has biggest school funding decline in nation

How’s this for a grim school funding statistic: A new report out Wednesday says total revenue for Michigan schools declined 30 percent from 2002 to 2015 — the largest decline for any state over the past quarter century.

The statistic, adjusted for inflation, is among findings of a report by researchers at Michigan State University that reviews school funding and recommends how the state can improve.

“Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap, focusing on more accountability and school choice,” wrote David Arsen, lead author and professor of education policy. “To make those policies effective, they have to be matched with adequate funding. We have been kidding ourselves to think we can move forward while cutting funding for schools.”

Co-authors are Tanner Delpier and Jesse Nagel, MSU doctoral students.

Here are a few of the highlights in the report — which is aimed at spurring public discussion of how to improve school funding in the state. The data were adjusted for inflation:

  • Dead last: Where Michigan ranks in total education revenue growth since the mid-90s, when the state’s current school funding formula was developed.
  • 60 percent: How much funding for at-risk students has declined since 2001.
  • 22 percent: How much per-pupil revenue declined from 2002 to 2015.

 The report comes about a year after the bipartisan School Finance Research Collaborative released a comprehensive set of recommendations for fixing the school funding system in Michigan. The MSU report provides a review of that report and adopts many of its recommendations.

It also comes after a December lame-duck legislative session in Michigan that ended with lawmakers voting to shift some funding from the state School Aid Fund to other priorities, such as road repairs and environmental cleanups.

Officials from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group that represents educators in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, said the MSU report should be a wake-up call for lawmakers. They said it confirms that Michigan’s K-12 funding is in crisis.

“Lawmakers need to stop hiding behind talking points that claim they are investing in our schools when the reality is our funding hasn’t even kept up with the rate of inflation, let alone the increased cost of the services we are being asked to provide our students,” said George Heitsch, president of the alliance and superintendent of Farmington Public Schools. “When you see the numbers from this report showing the drastic funding cuts that have been forced on our schools in recent years, it should be no wonder why our state ranks at the bottom in reading and math proficiency. This simply has to change because our students deserve better.”

Read the full report for more information and recommendations: