Opinion: Daily Journal

Charter school was best choice for special-needs child

(Graphic courtesy of National School Choice Week)
(Graphic courtesy of National School Choice Week)

Stories about the value of school choice and the healthy competition it nurtures are ubiquitous yet salient. Proponents of traditional public schools often degrade charters and school choice in general by defining the schools and ideology as elitist, discriminatory, unaccountable, and a drain on funding for those traditional public schools.

None of that is true. I can personally attest that it isn’t.

I have twin boys who will soon be 14. One of my boys was classified as mildly autistic so, according to his standing in the public school system, he has “special needs.”

He qualifies for a plan under the Individualized Education Program, which allows him to receive instruction and considerations afforded to children eligible for special education.

His brother, born eight minutes before, gets no special help. His grades are excellent and he tests well, good things in the one-size-fits-all system of educating our children.

On end-of-grade tests, for example, the child with special needs is given extra accommodations, such as additional time to take the test and taking the test in a separate room.

The level of faith and trust in his teachers and the attention required of us in regard to monitoring his status and progress can’t be discounted. Making sure the process works requires a concerted and committed effort by several people. One small misunderstanding or misstep could lead to hours of conversations and corrections.

Is it unreasonable, then, to allow parents of special-needs students the privilege of choosing the people who will play such a significant role in teaching their children?

With the older child, we tend not to worry so much. We monitor his work closely and are confident he’ll raise his hand to us when he foresees a problem. This isn’t the case with the younger twin, who sometimes struggles with articulating his thoughts and needs and can’t be relied upon to identify problems or issues.

Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and Republican gubernatorial candidate, is a leading proponent of charter schools and school choice. He was a founder of Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte, which has 1,500 students and a waiting list of some 400. Ninety-nine percent of the school’s students are African-American, and 98 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches.

“It’s the go-to place to see how to educate poor, African-American children,” Vinroot said last week during a talk at the John Locke Foundation.

Competition spurs innovation and ensures accountability. School choice, says Vinroot, levels the playing field — for all children and all parents.

“Competition has made me a better lawyer,” says Vinroot, who spoke during National School Choice Week. “Competition has made our law firm competitive, and that’s the way it ought to be in everything we do.

He called out media, specifically The Charlotte Observer, for reporting “fake news” about charter schools.

“All the growth in publication education … in my city, is occurring in charter schools.

“It’s not a panacea,” he admits. “They don’t all work. When they fail, they go out of business, which is what ought to happen in a business.”

Since the state lifted the cap on charter schools in 2011, more than 10,000 children are choosing charter schools, Vinroot says, and, in 15 to 20 years, half of North Carolina’s students will choose charter schools. The state has 168 charter schools, with 32,000 students on waiting lists.

My wife and I pulled our boys out of a magnet public school in the middle of their fifth-grade year. A National Heritage Academies school near Greensboro, Summerfield Charter Academy, had two openings, but, because of an expansive waiting list, we had about a week to decide.

In our minds, placing the boys in the assigned middle school closer to home wouldn’t work. We had heard too many stories, and looked at too much data, to think otherwise. The middle school was an amalgamation of several elementary schools, which dumped in too many students with parents who didn’t care onto too few teachers. Teachers who spent too much time dealing with disciplinary problems and trying to maintain the status quo.

That wasn’t good enough, especially for our youngest son, who doesn’t necessarily “fit in.”

We wanted more. He needed more. We had a choice of public schools, and we made it.

More than anything else, really, that’s what matters. That, outside of private schools, we have a say in our boys’ education.

Charter schools provide an option, says Vinroot, for children and parents desperate for something better.

“The ultimate accountability is what those children’s parents think about the education their kids are getting — or not getting.”

It’s as simple as that.