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Make Public Education Work for Everyone Make Public Education Work for Everyone
Issue 013

Make Public Education Work for Everyone

by Marya Cohn

December 17, 2008
My husband is a Dutchman who moved to America to be with me. We have experienced many things together over the last seven years that have made me feel the need to apologize for my country. But, navigating the American education system on our children's behalf has made me sorrier than anything else.When I first explained the options available to a kindergarten student in America, my husband was completely baffled. The first private school in Holland opened just this year. I had to explain that American parents who can afford to do so have to weigh the many benefits of private school education against the costs of elitism. Since we happen to live near a good public school, our decision was relatively simple.Then we discovered that our son has a learning disability. The public school classroom choices available to America's more than 6 million disabled children are fairly limited. The Board of Education decides which type of class it deems most appropriate for your child. If you disagree with its placement recommendation, you have two choices: You can either let your child suffer in the wrong classroom while you fight for reassignment, or you can pre-emptively place your child in a special private school and sue the Board for reimbursement for failing to provide the legally mandated free and appropriate education.
Wouldn't it be smarter to invest in making public-school education in America meet all students' needs?
My husband and I watched as our self-confident, friendly 4-year-old became isolated and insecure in the wrong kind of classroom; we didn't know if he would dare to be fully present again. So when a group of experienced teachers and psychologists who knew our son told us that they believed he would feel lost and inadequate in a collaborative team teaching classroom-the placement the Board of Education had given him-my husband and I rejected it. When the Board responded by offering us the exact same type of placement in a different neighborhood, we put our son in a private school for children with learning disabilities-which costs $40,000 a year. And then, like 70,000 other parents of special needs children in America, we fought the Board of Education. The Board would not settle with us, so we requested an impartial hearing.We spent four days in a stiflingly hot room in Brooklyn listening to people who had never met our son testify that they understood his needs better than we did and imply that we were elitists who would never send our child to public school no matter what the circumstances. I had to testify under oath that I did not think that my beautiful boy could learn alongside "typically developing children." I am sure that both the Board of Education lawyer who impugned us, and the special education teacher who said, "when I think of your son," without having ever laid eyes on him, hoped to help disabled students when they took their jobs. But the existing system has turned them into our son's adversaries.And we are the lucky ones. The parents of disabled children who do not know the laws, who cannot afford a lawyer or the cost of a private school, do not have the option of challenging their child's placement or suing for reimbursement. Nor do the parents of "typically developing children" who think that the public schools are not providing appropriate education for their children. School vouchers have been proposed as a solution to this problem, but I fear that school vouchers merely make American education even more segregated than it is now. Allowing a few parents to buy their way out of a broken system is no way to fix it.Wouldn't it be smarter to invest in making public-school education in America meet all students' needs? Dutch citizens spend 30 percent of their taxrevenues on education, compared to the less than 5 percent we spend in the United States. The Dutch spend more tax revenues on education than on any other sector of their society. The Dutch educational system ranks ninth in the world. America's did not even make the top 20.But what if we did make education a priority? What if we provided all American students with those things that wealthy parents are buying when they send their children to private schools: smaller class sizes, better resources, better-trained teachers, and more inventive curricula? I, for one, would have a lot less apologizing to do.Cohn is a writer, writing teacher, and mother who lives in New York City.Author Portraits by Forrest Martin
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