Jennifer and Joe, a Douglas County couple whose teenage son attends a private school for students with autism, don’t want to be portrayed as a school choice success story.
But that’s exactly how they feel they were represented during a high-profile visit to the Denver school this fall by the nation’s top education official, Betsy DeVos.
The U.S. secretary of education, known for her support of charter schools and private school vouchers, didn’t name the Douglas County couple during her September speech to reporters, parents and school staff. But she talked about the landmark special education case they’d brought against their suburban Denver school district — the same district embroiled in a separate court battle over its plan to offer private school vouchers.
She described how the couple had pulled their son Endrew out of public school and placed him at Firefly Autism House, where he’d thrived.
“The district essentially dared them to sue, so they did and they won,” DeVos told the audience. “Endrew’s parents showed courage in rejecting the low bar set for their son.”
DeVos never mentioned vouchers directly, but her plug for school choice — with Joe, Jennifer and their son Endrew as protagonists — was clear.
“Every family should have that ability to choose the learning environment that’s right for their child,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it.”
Jennifer and Joe, who asked that their last name not be used to protect their family’s privacy, said in an interview with Chalkbeat that DeVos used their case to further her school choice agenda.
“To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe said.
“It was a little disappointing,” Jennifer said. “She picked the parts that she liked and used them for what she wanted.”
Liz Hill, U.S. Department of Education press secretary, responded via email to a request for DeVos’s response to Jennifer and Joe’s concerns.
She wrote, “Secretary DeVos appreciates and admires the courageous commitment Endrew F’s parents demonstrated to ensure their son received an education that met his individual and unique needs. They are but one of thousands of families across the nation who are fighting to get a better education for their children. The secretary stands with all parents who want the best for their children.”
With the recent election of four Douglas County school board candidates who oppose vouchers, it’s likely the district’s voucher program will never launch. Still, DeVos has voiced support for expanding voucher programs and putting federal funds toward them.
DeVos’s public words were particularly hard to take, Jennifer and Joe said, because they had met with the education secretary privately at her request. They were flattered by her interest, but felt she didn’t understand why private school vouchers would never work for them — or many other families who have children with disabilities.
First, the dollar amount of most voucher programs is paltry compared to what it costs to pay for specialized private schools like Firefly. Tuition there is more than $70,000 a year.
“Say, there was a voucher system in place and let’s pick $5,000.” Jennifer said. “That’s not enough for placement at Firefly. It doesn’t do anything.”
Jennifer and Joe, who own a company that sells industrial equipment, pay around half of Firefly’s tuition and their health insurance pays the rest, they said.
A 2016 report from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a national membership organization, highlighted the potential for such inequities.
“Voucher funding is rarely sufficient and generally does not cover the full cost of the child’s education, meaning that only parents with adequate finances truly have a choice,” the report states.