RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All week on the program, we're taking a look at school choice. Today we're going to meet two special needs families in Florida. President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have repeatedly touted the state as a national model for the expansion of school choice. Anya Kamenetz of the NPR Ed team reports.
AYDEN: I do like to go down the slide.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: An hour north of West Palm Beach in St. Lucie County, we meet 9-year-old Ayden in a local park. He loves karate, chapter books, video games...
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "YO-KAI WATCH WIBBLE WOBBLE")
UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: (As character) "Yo-Kai Watch: Wibble Wobble."
KAMENETZ: ...And really soft blankets.
AYDEN: Yeah, I love the fuzziness. I will just cocoon myself into my own burrito.
KAMENETZ: But when Ayden talks about his experience at public school, he develops a nervous tic.
AYDEN: I was at school, but, you know - (vocal tic) they're just keeping me at home for now (vocal tic). Yeah. But I'm going to go back to school eventually.
KAMENETZ: Ayden has autism and ADHD. We're not using his last name to protect his privacy. His mother, Lynn, says that at his public school, he had frequent meltdowns.
LYNN: It was hard. And - I mean, my stress was through the roof because it's like, what's going to happen today?
KAMENETZ: One day last fall, she says, he came home with bruises from being physically held down during an outburst.
LYNN: I was horrified. He was covered in bruises. He had finger grip bruises on both shoulders. He had bruising and scrapes on the back of his head, and he had bruises up and down his spine.
KAMENETZ: She says Ayden has suffered post-traumatic stress along with his injuries. St. Lucie Public Schools would not comment, citing privacy. Lynn pulled out of public school and started searching for a private school instead. Helping kids like Ayden find a better fit is exactly why vouchers for special needs students were created. Ayden is eligible for the McKay, which provides about $11,000 to attend a private school. McKay is the biggest and one of the oldest such programs in the country.
LYNN: Everybody's talking about how great vouchers are, how great vouchers are. And yes, they are a wonderful idea.
KAMENETZ: But here's the catch. For the past eight months, Lynn has not been able to find a school within driving distance that will accept Ayden. Several nearby schools advertise that they take students with autism.
LYNN: But the minute you call them, they're like - oh, well, we don't really have the staff to handle your child.
KAMENETZ: Here's the problem. Public schools are required by federal law to take every student no matter what. Private schools don't have to.
SHAWN ULLMAN: A lot of parents don't necessarily understand that they're giving up their rights.
KAMENETZ: Shawn Ullman is with The Arc, a national organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She says families have fewer legal protections outside the public schools, starting with the basic right to an education. Plus, given the services some of these kids need, often the voucher's not enough.
REED: (Playing keyboard).
KAMENETZ: While Lynn is still searching for a fourth-grade spot for Ayden, an hour southeast in Jupiter, on the beach, we meet Reed. He's a shy, 13-year-old "Star Wars" fan who plays Linkin Park covers in a local boy.
REED: (Singing, playing Linkin Park's "Numb") Tired of being what you want me to be, feeling...
KAMENETZ: It was back in preschool at a tiny Christian school that Reed was diagnosed with autism. His mother, Lauren, says, at first the school, Good Shepherd Episcopal, didn't think they could handle him. But eventually...
LAUREN: Reed ended up being one of their star students, I think, and one of the favorite students of the school.
KAMENETZ: The family brought in a therapist for Reed at their own expense and had her train the teachers in following Reed's behavioral plan.
REED: It was the glory days.
KAMENETZ: But the school ended after fifth grade, and the family was rejected by several other private schools. Where did they land? At the only school in the area that was required by law to take him.
LISA HASTEY: We're a regular old comprehensive public school.
KAMENETZ: That's Lisa Hastey, principal of the Jupiter Middle School of Technology, where Reed is now making A's and B's in mainstream classes as a seventh grader. The school has an autism specialist on staff.
FLORIDA ALL-STATE CHORUS: (Singing) Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti...
KAMENETZ: Reed is taking keyboard and is an all-state chorus. He says that between piano and singing, he prefers singing.
REED: It's my portable instrument.
KAMENETZ: And even more important, he's making friends. One of his buddies from chorus, Caleb, says he's always making everybody laugh.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEIZE THE DAY")
FLORIDA ALL-STATE CHORUS: (Singing) Open the gates and seize the day.
KAMENETZ: Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEIZE THE DAY")
FLORIDA ALL-STATE CHORUS: (Singing) Don't be afraid, and don't relent. Nothing can break us. No one can make us give our rights away. Oh, rise and seize the day.
[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly attribute a quotation to the wrong staff member of The Arc. The speaker was Annie Acosta, the director of fiscal and family support policy, not Shawn Ullman.]