It's time to expand Schools of Choice law for special education students

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Abigail Elwell, Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Michigan’s Schools of Choice law allows students to transfer to any public school district that has room for them. But that law doesn’t apply to all special education students; many disabled pupils are restricted in ways their fully abled peers aren’t.

Consider the following. Jenny is a seven-year-old student with a severe reading disability. Jenny’s parents realize that her school doesn’t have a program designed to meet her needs. They search for a literacy program with one-on-one assistance that uses top-notch comprehension strategies — and they find one only 20 minutes away. Excited at the prospect of Jenny’s future as a proficient reader, her parents search the school’s webpage and breathe a sigh of relief when they read an announcement about the school’s choice program. They contact the school to get the enrollment process going.

That is, until school officials specify that their Schools of Choice program only enrolls general education students. The intermediate school district that hosts their program refuses to share its funding with special needs students, like Jenny, who live outside its boundaries.

And so she stays where she is — in a situation that doesn’t work for her.

That is far less likely to happen to a general education student. If Jenny didn’t have a disability, she could switch to the other school district if slots were available. The school would receive a foundation allowance payment from the state to help cover the costs for the additional student, and Jenny’s family could enroll her in the sought-after school. But change Jenny back into a little girl with a disability, and suddenly she loses the chance to get the help she needs.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Under Senate Bill 410, a proposed amendment to Michigan’s School of Choice law, all students could cross intermediate school district lines and receive special education services. As Michigan law currently stands, an ISD can refuse to serve a nonresident special needs student simply because the student has special needs.

Senate Bill 410 would remove this unnecessary, insurmountable barrier that special education students face in using school choice by ensuring they are funded, regardless of where they attend. That’s how it works for general education students; so long as the new district decides it has space for more students, children who live outside its boundaries can enroll and all of their state funding would follow them. For special education students, however, the law gives ISDs the ability to decide not to let money meant for their students go elsewhere. The proposed law changes that by guaranteeing taxpayer dollars follow special education students to where they decide it’s best for them to learn. It restores the decision-making to the family and takes one more step toward putting the student, not the school, at the center of the funding system.

This bill is consistent with Michigan’s support for public school choice. Over 25 years ago, leaders in our state came together and decided that students should have the opportunity to choose where they learn. Of course, not every district welcomes choice students, and some families may need extra help with transportation. Still, isn’t it time we make good on our commitment to school choice by extending this freedom to all students who need special
education services?

SB 410 is where we can start. Let Jenny attend the school her family decides is best-positioned to educate her — whether she has disabilities or not.

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Abigail Elwell is a 2021 education policy intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.