Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Voucher ruling puts focus on public schools’ special-needs programs

QUEEN CREEK – Nine-year-old Gunner DeBesk, who has autism, attends Walker Butte Elementary, a public school that integrates students with special needs in physical education classes and lunch period.

Betsy Custard’s 12-year-old Cammie attends ASCEND Academy, a private school in Prescott for children with autism.

In March, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that a voucher system used by nearly 500 families across the state to help pay tuition at private schools was unconstitutional. That figure included about 300 families of children with special needs; the rest are families with foster children.

While some families benefiting from the vouchers say private schools are the best place for their children, others say that public schools can and do work effectively with special-needs children.

Amanda DeBesk said that Walker Butte has helped her son develop in ways that she didn’t think possible just five years ago.

Most of Gunner’s day is spent on motor skills – on exercises such as wiggling his toes in a bin of rice or jumping into a pile of foam padding. He works with a speech therapist once a week.

“They’ve really worked well with him. On top of the autism, he’s also very shy,” she said. “They took his shyness into account, and now he’s coming around and interacting with the other students and adults.”

Custard, a special education teacher in the Prescott Unified School District, uses a voucher to send Cammie to ASCEND. She said Cammie went to public school in the Humboldt Unified School District for three years, but she moved her to ASCEND because an aide assigned to look after her daughter and other students couldn’t provide the attention she needed.

“If ASCEND isn’t here, I’d have to consider whether or not I would send her to school,” Custard said.

Chris Thomas, director of legal services for the Arizona School Boards Association, said that private schools aren’t necessarily the answer for parents of children with special needs.

“It’s the school’s responsibility to educate these children, and if they can’t do it themselves they make other accommodations,” he said. “They (parents) just don’t have the absolute right to say they want to go to a different school.”

Thomas said that for each special-needs student, a group including three or four teachers, therapists and the parents develops an individualized education plan that sometimes calls for private school if that works better for a certain child.

“We’re not going back to the dark ages here,” Thomas said. “The vouchers came into place in 2006; we’ve been educating these kids for over 100 years.”

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