It’s the time of year when parents in New Orleans start the mad dash for a school for our kids. At schools across the city, parents are lining up to submit forms, pay application fees, and cash in any favors owed us by a friend of a friend of the admission director at the local public charter. This morning Mr. N and I were amongst them, crowding with other parents into a pre-K classroom to observe the lucky winners of last year’s lottery as they stacked blocks and read The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This was one of four observation days at the school. Today, there were probably fifty families represented. How many spots are up for grabs? What happens to the rest of us?
I ran into a former coworker whose son is close in age to Susan, and we compared which schools we were applying to for Pre-K. They’re looking at French immersion programs; I’m leaning towards Catholic or Episcopal schools in my neighborhood. The public charter is a best-case scenario. If you win the lottery and get in for Pre-K, your kid can stay in the charter school for the remainder of his education. This could save you tens of thousands of dollars over the next decade and a half. Plus, if you have younger children, they automatically get admission to the same school. Since private schools are typically $600/month per child, getting into the public charter is literally the deciding factor in whether to stay in New Orleans or move elsewhere.
What about our legal right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education? It’s the tooth fairy. It’s Santa Claus. It’s something we all believe in, in principle at least, but know we can’t count on. There is simply nothing available. The school board’s cupboard is bare.
When you add special needs into this already sad situation, it becomes desolate. Technically, public schools can’t turn away kids for having special needs. In reality, there are only so many spaces in a given classroom. Susan had her IEP evaluation two months before she turned three. At three, the services she previously received from the state – physical, occupational, and speech therapy – were cut off, because at that point the school board is supposed to take over. Since then, the only therapy she gets has been what we can pay for out of pocket, and our pockets are running very thin right now. Health insurance doesn’t cover long-term therapy, precisely because it’s generally provided by the state.
Her IEP says Susan should be getting therapy and special education and all sorts of wonderful services that she would certainly get if we lived anywhere else. I could take up a legal fight, and try to get reimbursed for some of the cost of private school and therapy. I know that by law I’d be in the right. But setting my faith in the legal system feels like chasing the Easter Bunny to try and get what Santa didn’t give me. More importantly, there’s only so much time and energy I have to spend fighting the school board, when I still have to find (and find a way to pay for) a decent education for my daughter.