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Mighty FuXia
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anna c at podium

"You can trade your child’s federally protected civil rights under the IDEA for a one-time monetary amount to pay for private school tuition."

Let me tell you about my son, mighty FuXia. I came all this way to brag on him. He loves Computer Aided Drafting, and he listens to Pink Floyd when he solders circuit boards. The 11th Doctor is his favorite. His best friend is Rocco, a 14-year-old horse he rides for dressage at Saddle Up. Fu was born with arthrogryposis, a severe joint disorder. In China, he lived in a rural orphanage and then a medical foster home. When Fu joined our family in 2010, he was 9. I will never forget Fu’s reaction to American public school. He gushed about the restroom big enough for him to use without help, the bus with an elevator just for his chair. He said proudly, “In America, I can go anywhere, I can do anything!” We’d been told Fu would need a wheelchair for mobility for life—but by 2014, he could use crutches at school, and he walked independently at home!

 

It took me longer to realize FuXia was struggling to learn. He has a reading disability and language impairment. It took us years to find answers, because his school kept saying nothing was amiss. For five long years, Fu fell further behind his peers while his school insisted he just needed more time to learn English. By 8th grade, when he was in the 3rd percentile for reading and the 1st percentile in writing, they concluded, “He’s just Chinese, he sounds Chinese.” When I voiced concern about his safety as a new walker, they hung a whistle around his neck in case he fell in the bathroom, carried him over the shoulder to outdoor science lab because they said he walked too slowly. I tried engaging our school in the process provided by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the IDEA. We eventually filed a due process complaint to trigger IDEA protections of Fu’s civil rights, and when it was dismissed, we appealed to Federal District Court, where our complaint sits.

 

After we appealed, the Tennessee Department of Education sent me a flyer about a new program, the IEA. The Individualized Education Account is Tennessee’s version of a voucher program for students with select disabilities who receive special education through an IEP. It gives parents school choice—you can trade your child’s federally protected civil rights under the IDEA for a one-time monetary amount to pay for private school tuition. The average IEA award is $6,300, and 9 Tennessee private schools are approved for IEA use. To keep your child in private school, you must re-apply annually, with no guarantees. If you re-enroll your child in public school, his IEP is gone. He must start the evaluation process from scratch.

 

“Orthopedic Impairment” is listed on Fu’s IEP as his primary area of disability—it’s one of six IEA-eligible disabilities. With this in mind, I looked into the approved private schools. There are three in the Nashville area. One is a parochial K-8 school. Fu is currently a 9th grader. The second is located on the second floor of a shared office building. The office building isn’t ADA compliant, and there’s no elevator. Fu can’t climb 2 flights yet & I can’t carry him. At the third school, tuition is $50 an hour. Given Tennessee’s minimum weekly instruction time, the IEA would provide Fu 6 weeks’ tuition.

 

I shared my concerns with Senator Alexander’s HELP staffers a few weeks ago. They said vouchers are just one more option for parents, and parents of students with disabilities may find vouchers don’t work for them. But in Tennessee, IEA funds are ONLY for students with disabilities. Private schools aren’t obligated to comply with the ADA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, so parents who trade IDEA rights give up their children’s protections under those laws as well.

 

In Tennessee, the IEA is a flop. Only 48 students are using it this year. The State Legislature hopes the IEA will grow in its second year, and they are working on two bills to expand eligibility. One would let a parent apply for an IEA with a child’s diagnosis of qualifying disability from a medical professional. This would deny students the incredibly strong protection of IDEA’s Child Find provisions. Under Child Find, a Local Education Agency must identify and evaluate ALL children suspected of disability living within its boundaries at NO COST to parents. A parent who applies for an IEA waives that IDEA right. Child Find is the cornerstone of the IDEA’s mission to provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education. How can a parent make informed choices about their child’s appropriate education if they don’t know where to begin and can’t finance thorough evaluations?

 

Undaunted by the IEA’s failure to garner interest, the Tennessee Legislature is working on “The Empowerment Scholarship Account Act,” a bill to make vouchers available to ALL Tennessee students. If passed, this voucher program is expected to pull $71 million a year from Tennessee public schools. It also comes with another layer of discrimination. Unlike the IEA’s average $6,300 award, the Empowerment Scholarship would allow parents $7,000 annually toward their children’s education. Parents of students with disabilities may apply for both but will only receive one, though there’s no express indication in the Empowerment Scholarship bill of what would happen to a student’s IDEA rights.

 

Fu’s experience in public school has altered the course of our family’s life. I homeschool him now, I take him to language therapy, cognitive therapy, physical therapy, and equine therapy. I drag him to Washington on his Spring Break for Government class. I haven’t cloned myself yet, so our family survives on my husband’s teaching salary. We sit just above eligibility for entitlement programs. I joined the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, learning what I can to advocate for other children with disabilities. I even started a nonprofit to advocate for the unique learning needs of children adopted internationally. Meanwhile, we’ve used crowd-funding to provide for Fu’s therapies and tutoring.

 

I believe in public schools. I believe that general and special education teachers, with support from their districts and states, are the best equipped professionals to address the unique learning needs of students with disabilities. And I strongly believe that public schools are communities in microcosm that my child must be able to participate in, if he is going to function productively in his community as an adult. If we shuffle children with disabilities off to private schools or homeschools or whatever “place” is easier, then we are preparing them for lives of dependency. My mighty FuXia has so much more to offer than that.

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