A Mom’s Message to the Legislature – July 3, 2024


Broken Promises: Private School Vouchers are NOT the Answer

While the state legislature is expected to be in budget negotations over the holiday weekend, we thought it important that they hear from Melissa Suarez (photo on left), a Philly mom of three boys with learning differences, on private school vouchers. 

First off, let me say this: I think the public school system needs major improvements. It is plagued by violence, weak resources, deficient curricula, and teachers who are overwhelmed by the challenges of the job. I do not have all the answers as to how to change all that. There’s a lot that I do not know.

But here is one thing I do know from hard personal experience with my own children: Private schools are not some magical, easy solution for children who struggle and any big investment of public money into vouchers to send children to private schools will fail.

As a parent who once thought I might benefit from what was a kind of voucher, I’m now speaking against them.

Why? For many reasons.

Vouchers funnel students into schools that have no legal requirement or oversight on how to correct discrimination, how to deal with behavior problems, or how to pay attention to the physical and mental health of students. Most offer no free lunches. They may not be prepared (or willing) to deal with a host of educational or physical disabilities that public schools must, by law, accommodate. And if your child should lapse into a behavior problem, will these schools pull together an expert team to work on the root issues? Ha! The answer might just as likely be: Get out!

Sounds like a recipe for producing even more troubled, struggling kids on a fast track to juvenile detention and prison.

Let me tell you about one of my three sons. Neither charters – another pet solution of some would-be reformers – nor private schools have dealt at all well with the challenges he faces.

It seems ironic now. A few years back, after a lot of strategizing, time, and effort, we survived the lottery process to get this son and his twin brother into a well-respected charter. I cried with joy when I called family members to tell them the news.

For the first year we had a good experience, one that almost lived up to the hype about charters. In first grade, some concerns arose for the one twin, but the school told us they could keep “an eye on things.” But, as happened with many children, the pandemic was a disaster for this one son of ours. He was really falling behind not only his twin brother, but his other classmates. His major problem was with reading. Month by month, year by year, the gap between where he was and where he should be widened. I spoke to teachers, administrators, the special ed director, even the charter school CEO. 

They did little unless I demanded it. Finally, we got legal representation; we arranged for private neuropsychologists to examine our son. 

Only then was a solution proposed: They would send our son to a private school at the public’s expense. 

So, what happened at this private school? It may seem hard to believe, but my son is getting less helpful intervention there than he did before. The private school is not bound by the same legal requirements regarding educational disability that applied to both the public and charter school.

One member of the school staff told me that, with regard to my son, they felt they just had to “wing it” on helping his reading.  Words cannot fully convey my shock and disappointment at that moment. 

We feel trapped. It doesn’t seem that the public system is paying any attention to how this school is failing my son, but we’re reluctant as parents to put him through yet another stressful transfer to yet another school.

Our son has not had a fair shake at education. He hasn’t been taught yet in a way that manages his ADHD and other learning needs. It is in no way his fault, but he absolutely internalizes all this as the result of his personal “stupidity.” Meanwhile, instead of addressing his needs, the private school is labeling him a “behavioral problem.” Kids don’t want to look stupid in front of peers, but they can’t escape the demands of school. So they act out, just as my son has.

So, why do I think vouchers will fail? Because they will send students to schools that want the money, but don’t necessarily want the demands of giving children with special needs or behavioral issues the help they deserve. Public schools may struggle with the same challenges, but under the law they don’t have the same ability as a private school to flat-out duck them. 

It’s just not fair to demand that public schools where resources are sorely lacking must do right by children like my son, then turn around to throw money at private schools that might promise, but don’t really try.

The child care crisis still continues. Tell Governor Shapiro and the legislature to include child care funding in the state budget so parents can afford high-quality care for their children.

Instead of doing their job on time and passing a state budget that supports 1.7 million PA students, the state Senate is fast-tracking more tax credits for private school students.

Join our team! From K-12, early childhood education, digital content, finance, and mental health policy, Children First has some exciting positions open.

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“For me, education has been transformative.
But many people have never thought of it as
a career. The Legislature can change that.
An investment of $10 million for Grow-Your-
Own programs, or GYO, would go a long way
in helping high school students across the
state see themselves as teachers in their
– Penn State student Autumn Smith on the
value of GYO which would build a more
diverse teacher pipeline