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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Fighting for a Public School for Students With Autism and Neurodiversity: Choices Parents Want

For years, parents of children with special needs have demanded classroom inclusion. They want a Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in general classes, the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

But in Philadelphia, parents want a public school for students with autism and neurodiversity. They recognize that their students are not getting the resources or teachers they need to do their best in the general education classroom.

They should get what they’re asking for. Parents should have real public school options.

IDEA Should Involve Public School Choices

It’s important to remember that IDEA states that children with disabilities should be educated in general classes to the ‘maximum extent appropriate.’ This means other classroom environments are, or should be, just as critical when the general class isn’t the best.

The Philadelphia school district has 3,400 students who could benefit from such a school, and parents can’t afford to fight the system for outside private school placement, and they shouldn’t have to. Their children need something different, and that’s supposed to be what FAPE and IDEA are about.

While the LRE is suitable for some, and many children with disabilities can manage well in general classes, there should be no stigma or argument from school district leaders if students are better served in a public school for children with autism and neurodivergent needs.

The LRE can be challenging if classes are too large, and general education teachers might not understand the various special needs children may bring to the classroom. Diversifying instruction for many students may look good on paper, but it’s more challenging to implement.

Some parents, if they can afford it, remove their children from public schools when their student’s special needs are not addressed in a general classroom, and they place them in a special private school without inclusion, hoping for an intense focus on academic and social instruction, and where the student gets smaller classes and more individualized attention.

But private, parochial, and charter schools can be lacking when it comes to addressing the needs of children with autism and with neurodivergent needs.

Remembering the History and What It Means for Today and the Future

Special education was supposed to assist students with disabilities starting in the early 1970s. Children often confined to terrible institutions now saw the schoolhouse doors open.

Still, when the All Handicapped Children Act became law in 1975, an unprecedented change to welcome all children into public schools to meet their individual learning needs, President Gerald Ford and many lawmakers recognized that it would be costly. Ford signed the bill without a Rose Garden celebration, despite the great pride Americans should have felt for showing they collectively cared for every child.

For years, public schools built a special education system that addressed the needs of students with Individual Educational Plans, with funds that were never sufficient.

But by the 1990s many parents were convinced that nothing less than general education full inclusion would benefit their child. This was called the Regular Education Initiative (REI) and it became controversial.

Parents with children in public school also became convinced that their children deserved to master the high-stakes standardized tests without questioning whether standards or one-size-fits-all expectations might be bad for all children.

Other parents and educators continued to fight for a continuum of services, for children who would benefit from special classes or schools.

All of this culminated into the reauthorization of the All Handicapped Children’s Act of 1975 into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1998. IDEA was reauthorized again in 2004.

Many school leaders and corporate school reformers wanted to see a cost reduction for special education services. They never wanted to pay for those services from the start.

Nonprofits were set up to look for ways to cut special education costs. Remember the SPEDX scandal in Texas and Futures?

Texas led states in cutting services, denying tens of thousands of children with disabilities special education by capping the number of students with disabilities to decrease the costs. It’s was still a problem in Texas in 2020.

The New Orleans charter system has also had difficulties with serving children with disabilities, but despite a lawsuit, as of 2020, they, like Texas, continue to have problems serving children with disabilities. 

Probably many parents and educators can point to problems with serving children with special needs in other states too.

So what are parents to do? Will private or parochial schools take children with disabilities in inclusion classes? Charter schools are known for denying applications to children with disabilities or counseling them out. Questions should be raised too about the quality of such placements. Are the teachers well-prepared and qualified?  Parents have little to go by.

Provide Parents in Philadelphia Their Public School for Autism and Neurodiverse Students

Parents seem to recognize this in Philly. One parent, also a school counselor, said that fighting for her autistic son’s access to resources such as properly trained special needs teachers — lead her to believe that ‘the same system that was created to protect autistic kids from being institutionalized is harming them now.’

For those of us who have studied special education long term, this is a sad and troubling, albeit realistic statement. Parents of children with special needs are being driven out of public education because they’re not receiving the services they deserve by law.

Philadelphia parents scrounge around to build a nonprofit to fight for their special school, but why must they do this? Why is the Philadelphia school system so underfunded that they cannot pay for a special public school for students with autism and neurodiversity?

Look to years of driving corporate privatization of public schools by draining their funds dry and pushing parents out.

Watching Philadelphia parents recognize the importance of a public school for children with autism and neurodiversity is welcome. Let’s hope it catches on in other states and local school districts.

School districts should comply and states and the U.S. Department of Education should support such arrangements, so students will get the assistance they deserve under special education law that has been manipulated far too long to not provide the services that children were promised.


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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...