Nashville Report on Special Needs Education Misses the Mark

Commentary — By on September 8, 2008 at 9:38 pm

By Shaka Mitchell

On August 13, for the second time in 10 years, a task force convened by Nashville’s Mayor proposed a plan for providing a better education to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools’ special needs students. The study council suggested 10 recommendations that, while noble, miss the mark in truly transforming the system and giving special needs students their greatest chance at success.

Ask any parent of a special needs student who should make educational decisions for their child and you’ll get the same answer – the parent. Giving parents a meaningful choice is the best way to ensure that students in Nashville have access to an education that works best for them.

Since the last mayoral study was commissioned, not much has changed in terms of services provided by MNPS. Parents still bemoan the lack of inclusion for their children; there is still a shortage of adequate training in the public school system for teachers; effective curriculum still fails to reach all students. The list goes on.

The study seeks to make district-wide changes, but there is a major problem at the heart of this reasoning: Students each have unique learning needs and no centralized system can properly address them at the individual level. Simply put, a parent is the person in the best position to determine what school setting fits each student.

MNPS spent an average of nearly $8,000 per student during the 2007-08 school year. That number is much higher for special needs students. For example, MNPS spent $50,094 on one special needs student last school year alone. The new report underscores the fact that much of this money is not being well spent.

Williamson County is praised for its special needs education. The County’s current program, while better than most, has been eight years in the making. Parents of special needs kids in Nashville cannot afford to let another eight years pass by before something slightly better comes along.

If the Mayor wants to see a great system already in place he should look even further south than Williamson County, all the way to Georgia. Imagine if, instead of being told where to send your student with Down syndrome, you could take the money being wasted in a school that doesn’t work and send her to a school that specializes in the type of education you find appropriate. Currently this luxury is only available to Tennessee’s wealthy, but it’s an opportunity widely offered to parents in Georgia.

In 2007, Georgia enacted a law that allows parents of special needs students to take the state portion of money to the school of their choice. Many were skeptical at first, but in just the first year the Georgia Department of Education reports that 899 children benefitted from the program, which included 117 different schools. For the first time working class parents in Georgia can send their student to a school without worrying that the school will do more harm than good.

What’s needed in Nashville is bold reform and increased parental control if kids are to see lasting improvement before it’s too late. By using Georgia as a model, the time for reform is now.

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