For thousands of Texas parents, the start of the school year has taken on a new meaning: an end to the conflicts, struggles and disappointment with the public school system.
A growing number of parents of special-needs children are opting out of public schools, deciding instead to home school or to pay for pricey private schools.
The number of secondary students who left public schools to home school increased 50 percent from 2003 to 2010, reaching 2,040 7th- through 12th-graders, according to the Texas Education Agency. The number of middle- and high-school special education students who withdrew for private school increased 75 percent, reaching 772 in 2010.
That’s not to mention thousands of younger students whose reasons for leaving public schools aren’t recorded, or the countless families who give up on public school before their child receives a needed “special education” classification. With Texas’ diagnosis rate falling to an all-time low of 8.8 percent in recent years – the lowest in the nation – the label and its accompanying services are harder than ever to come by.
“It’s the free market at work. People are voting with their feet,” said Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition. “Parents just get frustrated with the bureaucracy of the public school.”
A record 300,000 Texas children are being home-schooled, and an increasing number of them have special needs, prompting the creation of support groups and specialized curriculum. Some families who don’t feel equipped to handle home-schooling a child with special needs search out one of the dozens of specialty private schools, often paying the equivalent of Ivy League tuition.
Leslie Phillips pulled her son out of a Katy school when he was in second grade, opting to pay a $30,000-a-year tuition bill rather than continue fighting for the services she felt he needed. The family viewed tuition as a better investment than a legal battle they were unlikely to win. To add urgency, her son, who has an autism disorder, was coming home with bruises that no one could explain.
Lack of resources
“They just didn’t or couldn’t respond quickly enough to get us in a situation that was safe for him,” said Phillips, whose son, now 12, is thriving at a private school. “I have probably more sympathy for school districts than many parents. … They’re left with this explosion of children with a high level of need and they can’t scramble fast enough to get the resources and training.”
Considering the autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder epidemics, Texas’ shrinking number of special education children seems questionable, she added.
Some education officials, however, argue the decline is a positive sign that public schools are identifying and remediating learning disabilities faster, reducing the need for special education.
Cynthia Singleton home-schooled her son, who has autism, for several years before enrolling him in Johnston Middle School in the Houston ISD, where he’s an eighth-grader in advanced classes. It’s the lack of attention to the social needs of special education students that will likely leave her scrambling for alternatives for high school.
“They don’t have even half of the resources they need to handle the kid with disabilities,” she said. “They turn a blind eye to the social needs.”
A niche group of lawyers defends school districts against parents’ special-education legal claims, making it difficult for parents to prevail without spending considerable time and money.
‘Find an alternative’
“When you get into a fight with a school, it’s like a divorce,” Singleton said. “I’d rather take my energy and money and find an alternative.”
Claudia Wanczyk pulled her son out of Katy ISD when he was rezoned to a different school with a new teacher at the start of fourth grade. The family has spent thousands of dollars on therapy in addition to home-schooling the 12-year-old.
“He’s made more progress” at home, she said.
Rebecca Rex‘s son is starting Lone Star College this month after being home-schooled throughout K-12. She showed up for kindergarten registration 15 years ago intending to enroll him in public school, but she had immediate concerns about administrators’ reaction to her son, who was born with lead poisoning.
Rex’s son is now an avid photographer and a skilled swimmer. He’s well traveled and a talented artist.
“It just became a way of life for us,” she said. “I guess I’m happy the school system ran me off, to be honest.”