Guest Column – ‘Universal School of Choice’ or Forced Segregation?: Why Inclusion Matters

In its current form, there is nothing ‘universal’ about the proposed ‘universal’ school of choice voucher program. The word universal implies that access is open; (and to a certain extent unlimited.) However, by their very definition private schools are entities that are allowed to be selective with the type of children they accept into their institutions. For instance, many schools would not accept children like my non-verbal autistic child on the sole premise of his disability. 

There was a time when due to what was called ‘ugly laws’ children like my child were not allowed out in public, let alone given access to a free appropriate public education. Brown vs Board Of Education changed all of that when it integrated schools; and now for more than half a century  disabled children have been able to access the support and accommodation they need to be successful and included in the classroom. This new proposed bill however, is a threat to the educational rights of disabled children and is  a slap in the face to the efforts put forth by inclusion programs in schools all across the state of florida.

For one, despite this program  being marketed by the bill as a ‘choice’ it is only a choice for children who have equitable access to the admission process. If private schools are allowed to turn children like my child away based solely on their disability then the option of choosing private schools becomes limited based on a child’s access to acceptance. Secondly, even if I could get my disabled child accepted into a private school, there is no guarantee that the school would provide him with the support and accommodations he needs to be successful. 

Unlike public schools, private schools are under no obligation to implement individualized educational plans (or IEPs.) IEPs are federally binding legal contracts that require public schools to provide disabled children with the support they need to succeed. However,  without any such guarantee at private institutions children like my child risk being barred from the ability to succeed if they are placed in a private school that refuses to properly accommodate them. 

How is it a ‘school of choice’ when only abled children are able to make that choice without risking educational success? How is it ‘universal’ if access to admission is selective? When we think this through it becomes clear that without provisions on equitable private school admission processes, and without assurances for IEP implementation to  special needs families this bill cannot truly be a universal choice for all Florida families. If the governor (and the legislators in the house) want to truly give Floridian families a choice when it comes to their children’s education, then they at the very least should ensure that children like my son (and parents like myself) get a choice in the matter. Otherwise, we may as well call this bill what it really is, state-sanctioned, publicly funded educational segregation. 

Sierra Bush Rester is a lifelong Floridian, local activist, parents and caregiver and a former elected precinct committee woman for the Leon County Democratic Party.

Sierra Bush Rester – Guest Columnist


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