The Georgia Cyber Academy is a public program for students from kindergarten to 11th grade. Although it is a public school, children attend from home via computer connection from the internet. Taking advantage of the virtual environment, students can go through the program at their own pace, consistent with state curriculum requirements. Although there are many implementation concerns, the ideal is that competition between the virtual schools and the local school districts will create additional incentives for the local districts to improve the quality of their programs. For parents, the virtual schools have a similar relationship to the public schools as private schools – while retaining the low or no cost of a public school.
Although the virtual schools are a valuable resource for some parents, their role in special education is concerning. The existence of the Cyber Academy allows parents the opportunity to leave a school district without moving, enrolling in an expensive private placement, or abandoning any attempt to education their children. From the parents’ perspective, the Cyber Academy is an escape from a school district that seems unable to meet their children’s needs. But from the school district’s perspective, a parent making life difficult by advocating for a special needs child has simply vanished. Suddenly, district administrators are free to act as if they have no responsibility to provide for that child’s needs – because they don’t as a practical matter.
This is problematic because educating children at home instead of in a physical school has substantial downsides. As I discussed previously many students with special needs need help developing social skills. Socials skills are very difficult to develop without regular interaction with typically developing children. School attendance provides an opportunity for interactions with peers. Further, the structured environment of the school setting increases the chance that appropriate behaviors and interactions will occur - so your child is less likely to model bad habits. Providing this setting and meeting these goals is part of the legal obligation of the school district.
More precisely, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act obligates school districts to try to try to educate a child in the “Least Restrictive Environment.” Specifically, the IDEA says:
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(B)
There are multiple justifications for this obligation, including removing the stigma of the “special needs” label, ensuring that educational goals are sufficiently aggressive, and the social skills issues I discussed above. Regardless of particular reasons, it is very clear that a home placement is a more restrictive environment than any in-school setting. Yet the poor quality of special needs services provided by schools means that some parents feel that it is a better option for their children. First, this decision may create bureaucratic barriers for a child to receive occupational or physical therapy they are entitled to. And it is a false choice – if the district was doing an adequate job, most parents would not feel the need to withdraw from the district in the first place.
Further, this dynamic harkens back to the very problems that lead to the passable of the IDEA and predecessor statutes – specifically, school districts telling certain children with special needs that they would not be permitted to enroll at all. Now, the existence of the Cyber Academy allows school districts to manipulate parents to achieve the same effect – children with special needs being educated separate and out-of-sight of typically developing children. This is just not right.