House Bill 329 (the Special Needs Opportunity Act) is a bad bill. Taking funding for special education students from public schools and giving it to parents to use as they will, in private schools, with an education saving account, is not a good idea. I speak from experience.
Our son had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) from third grade through college. His teachers at the UM LAB (Learning and Belonging) Preschool noticed he had some issues they could not address. We got a referral to the public preschool for kids with special needs. There, he was able to receive speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy. He went to his preschool in the morning at the UM LAB school and got on a little school bus to the Jefferson Preschool (transportation provided by the school district) in the afternoon. We considered enrolling him at St. Joseph's, but they told us transportation would have to be provided to the public school for services, so why would we pay tuition to a private school when he gets the services he needs at public school?
His team of teachers from Lewis and Clark Elementary to Washington Middle School to Hellgate High School worked so hard to help him succeed and we, as parents, were included every step of the way. I am by far not a special education expert, and wouldn't know where to begin, so to think that giving parents the funds to use as they wish would be a good thing is unwise.
Our son was undiagnosed on the autism spectrum until he was in third grade. He received assistance under the speech therapy umbrella until he was diagnosed, and his dad and I were grateful. We didn’t know what autism was then, and we were honestly scared for our son. There is a reason it is called a spectrum. Our son is very high-functioning, but was sensitive to noises and would flap his hands when he was excited. I went to his sixth-grade class to talk to them about his noise sensitivities because kids would be cruel and purposefully cause him stress and bully him. Granted, this was 20 years ago, and we have learned much more about autism, but the teachers and para-educators he had along the way prepared him for success. He is a 2019 University of Montana graduate.
I am, to this day, grateful for his team of teachers along the way who were dedicated to his success and worked tirelessly with him, and with his dad and I, to assure his success. There may be new programs available and resources, but teachers in the public schools are trained to work with their students. Quite frankly, the loss of funds to public schools and special education departments would be devastating, especially if the student needed to come back to the public school and lost a year or two of progress because of being out of the public school system.
I hope the Montana Senate will show greater wisdom when considering this bill, and for the sake of our students, vote "no" on this bill. Please call your senator today at 406-444-4800, or follow the legislature and this bill at leg.mt.gov.
Susie Reber Orr is the parent of a successful special needs student educated in Missoula County Public Schools.