Saturday, May 18, 2024

My special needs son couldn’t receive services due to discriminatory California law

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I knew something was different about my son Yonatan when he was very young.

My husband and I, like all our friends, started off sending Yonatan to Jewish school; it was important to us because we are observant Jews. But from the beginning, there were issues. Unlike the other kids, he couldn’t sit still or follow directions in a typical classroom environment. Though his teachers tried to help him keep up, they were unable to meet his needs. It was clear that he needed additional help.

We contacted our local public school to get Yonatan an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which provides services for students who need additional help. It was then we learned the heartbreaking news that we had to enroll him in public school to get him the help he needed. We had no choice but to prioritize his physical, neurological and academic development over his spiritual and religious growth.

The tragic part is that it never had to be this way. In California, families can use funding from a federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to place their children in hundreds of private schools. But politicians in Sacramento categorically ban all private religious schools and the families they want to serve from even applying to receive this funding. Although other states fund programs for students with disabilities in religious schools through IDEA, California does not.

Unfortunately, paying out of pocket was never an option for us. Like many other families in the Golden State, we could not bear the costs of paying tuition at a Jewish school and for the disability resources he needed. We were forced to abandon the education we wanted for our son simply because religious schools are cut off from the same funding that hundreds of other private schools receive.

Yonatan is 19 years old now, and I regret the fact that he never had access to a Jewish education. The Jewish community on its own cannot fund programs for special needs students. The cost to educate these students are prohibitive without state support, who need therapists and access to the right technology to keep up in the classroom. It’s simply too much of a financial burden for the community to bare.

My son deeply cares about his faith. Every Sabbath, he goes around our Jewish neighborhood from synagogue to synagogue, smiling, dancing and opening up the ark where the Torah is kept. He is well-known to members of our community, who love him and his enthusiasm.

Recently, he went on a school trip, and even though we have told his school on many occasions that he can’t eat non-kosher food, he came home and told me that he ate pizza from a non-kosher restaurant. Incidents like that one has been a tragic motif of his time in public school.

Yonatan has come home begging us to dress up for Halloween – a holiday observant Jews don’t celebrate. We have made decisions that we never thought we’d have to, such as sending him to school on Jewish holidays. But when that bus pulls up in front of our house and our kid with special needs begs us to go, it is painful to have to give in.

Sending your child to a non-religious school doesn’t just impact your child – it impacts your entire family. Though Yonatan has had some great educators over the years who cared about him, they weren’t and aren’t equipped to handle his religious needs. I know that if Yonatan had been provided services in a Jewish environment, he would have flourished, but that conversation was never able to materialize.

I feel that as a mother, I have failed my child, and other children like him in my community by not fighting harder for funding for special needs services in religious schools. I have compromised on what is right for them, as well as my own family.

As a parent, you should have the ability to raise your child the way you see fit. Millions of parents around the country can but because of California’s discriminatory rule, I wasn’t given that fundamental right.

The rule must be discarded in the dustbin of history. If non-religious private schools receive IDEA funding, religious schools should as well. I’m now fighting for other families with stories like mine, such as the Loffmans, whom—represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—are currently suing the state of California, along with several other families and Jewish day schools, to gain access to these services in Loffman v. California Department of Education. Their son is young, and they still have the opportunity to give him what he needs both developmentally and spiritually. All Californians have an obligation to make sure that happens.

I may have had to compromise on my kid’s education, but other parents shouldn’t have to. Parents deserve the right to pick the school that’s right for their children– and have the full support of the state of California behind them. I pray that day arrives soon.

Miriam Mark is the Executive Director of Teach CA, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of yeshivas and Jewish day schools for equitable government funding and resources.

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