A Choosy Mom on Choosing Schools

Karla Phillips

After spending many wonderful years in our church preschool, it was time for my daughter to transfer to public school. As any mom can attest to, this can be an emotional time. When you have a child with special needs, it can be unnerving. I have spent a great portion of my professional career advocating for school choice, but the truth of the matter is that the decision-making process is not for the faint of heart.

As school choice continues to expand across the country, there has been a lot of discussion exploring how and why parents make the choices that they do. As Liz Wimmer points out, it’s not as simple as we would like to believe. And in a school-choice rich state like Arizona this is important information.

What we continue to discover is that there is a discrepancy between what school choice advocates and researchers think are the most important factors and what is actually driving parents’ decisions. Education reformers have hoped and quite frankly assumed that academic achievement or test scores would be the primary motivator but we know now that it is not the case.

A similar issue arises in the special education community. Parents frequently ask my opinion of schools for their children with special needs and typically they want to know what kind of services and programs they have.

They usually don’t like my answer. “I don’t know I’m not taking my daughter to get serviced. I’m looking for a great school.”

Okay, to be honest, I’m intentionally trying to be antagonistic when I say that but I really am trying to make a point. Fortunately, some new research from the Arizona Department of Education has vindicated me.

A recent Raising Special Kids newsletter explains that,

The Arizona Department of Education examined three years of statewide testing data to find the schools where students with disabilities improved academically year after year. Through onsite visits with districts and charter schools, data collection and evaluation methods were used to examine what schools were doing to consistently improve outcomes for students. The goal was to identify key strategies to share with other schools and parents to improve outcomes for more students. It turns out that every high-performing school had six traits in common.

  1. High Expectations.
  2. Highly Effective Teaching Strategies.
  3. Data Driven Decision Making.
  4. Students Are Provided with Reteach and Enrichment Activities.
  5. Students with Disabilities Receive Core Instruction in the General Education Classroom
  6. Effective Leadership.

Aha! Just as I suspected. A good school is a good school for all kids. Please notice that the schools are not described as those with the highest test scores or rankings but those where the students with special needs were improving every year.

I certainly do not want to minimize the need for parents to ensure that the proper services and supports will be in place for their child or even that the personal priorities or preferences of the family are met. This is why I have long supported school choice with a robust menu of options for families.

I have long theorized that there is a School Choice Hierarchy of Needs akin to Maslow’s.


A single, working mom can’t choose a school across town if there is no transportation or aftercare regardless of how much the school excels. Similarly, although federal law requires all schools to provide special education services to all qualified students, parents know that the scope and quality of those services can vary dramatically.

Finding and choosing a good school is no easy task, especially if you have a child with special needs. Recent literature bears this out and I can certainly testify to it.

But I want my fellow parents in the trenches of IEP meetings to remember that our children are students first and a diagnosis second. While it is important that our children are safe and provided the services and supports that they need to succeed, it is just as important that the school have the six qualities listed above because all of our kids deserve a great school.

For additional resources on choosing a school, see:

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Karla Phillips is Policy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Follow her on Twitter @azkarla.

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I love this article. Our 9 year old has been diagnosed with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, and dysgraphia. Despite being intelligent and eager to learn, he has always been below grade level in reading and writing. According to his teachers, he has always been "catching up, doing fine," etc. I took my son for outside testing at the local university, and also to an occupational and speech therapist. The results really angered me. I was right all along about my child's struggles, and felt his school either did not care about his needs or else just didn't see his issues as a problem. Lucky for us, one of the best schools in the nation for kids with ADHD and assorted LD's is close by, and they warmly accepted our son as "perfect" for the school. It is very expensive, however, and we are only able to do this because of a good amount of financial aid and the incredibly generous actions of a family member. My children will never again be placed in our local school district. We will open enroll them in an outside district, which is one of the top districts in the state (not to mention the nation). I strongly feel that if our son had been in the better district from the beginning, he would have received help sooner. It is so very, very important to place your child in the right school. It can also be awfully difficult to do this.


Great post - thanks for sharing your experiences regarding this topic. By asking the right Q's, parents of special needs children can make more informed choices and make the best decisions for their child's education.

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