Where All the Children Are Above Average

In the new my-kid-first world of education, anxious moms like Charissa Stone are demanding pricey special help from their public schools. It's what any good parent would do ... isn't it?

THERE’S ANOTHER PART TO CHARISSA STONE’S STORY, one that complicates it. Her 11-year-old, Amanda, is autistic. When I visit the Stones’ toy-strewn colonial in a quiet Newtown development, Erin, who has freckles and her mom’s dark hair, shows me how her Barbie’s outfit changes when you turn it inside out.

Amanda­­—same freckles, same hair—hides behind the sofa.

Amanda began getting services when she was still a toddler, through the state; she had a speech therapist, an occupational therapist and an itinerant teacher. All the care, along with her medication, was free. Yet when it was time to start kindergarten at Goodnoe, her local elementary school, she was denied special-ed status. Her testing was done by the same psychologist, Elizabeth Lalli, who later turned Erin down.

Charissa fought for services for Amanda. Her efforts intensified in the summer before second grade, after she and Amanda visited another family along with two boys scheduled to be in Amanda’s class the next year. The boys coaxed Amanda into a closet, then into taking off her clothes. “That was a turning point for me,” Charissa says. “I didn’t realize she was so naive. She wasn’t just ‘quirky’ anymore.” Charissa filed a police report, and demanded that the boys’ parents switch their sons to a different class. (Only one did.)

It wasn’t until fourth grade that Amanda’s status was finally changed to “autistic support.” Charissa rues the time that was lost. “Amanda had so many unnecessary therapies instead of the right ones,” she writes in an email. Amanda still struggles, especially socially. “You would not believe how cruel kids can be to each other,” Charissa says.

Nothing hurts a parent more than a kid who’s hurting. “It always starts,” Steiner says of antagonism between parents and schools, “because something hurts the child.”

COUNCIL ROCK SUPERINTENDENT MARK KLEIN is proud of the special-ed services his big, rich district provides: “Hearing aids, sign language—we go all the way up the continuum from minimal services in the classroom to catheterization in special classrooms to approved alternate schools.” Goodnoe Elementary houses classrooms just for autistic kids; there are aides, tutors, and social-skills programs that go far beyond what the law requires. The district incorporates IEP students in regular classrooms at rates above the state average. It spent $38 million on special-ed kids last year—19 percent of its budget. “It’s a real struggle to put the money we need from the regular budget to special ed,” Klein says, and yet they manage. Families move to Council Rock just for these services.

And yet there are parents who aren’t satisfied. “It feels to school districts like the parents are all lunatics who think their kids are geniuses,” sighs Steiner.

“‘Average’ is really an interesting facet,” Klein notes. “The average IQ here is about 117. So a kid with an IQ of 100 looks slow.” Council Rock is filled with families whose sights are set on Harvard and Yale: “We’re dealing with highly educated, litigious parents who are well aware of their rights.”

Conflicts between parents and the district, Klein says, tend to spring from expectations: “When I was an elementary principal and we’d identify a child as special-ed, the parents would ask: ‘When will you fix them?’ They want a cure. There’s never a cure.”

A suburban special-ed teacher who didn’t want her name used agrees: “Parents start to develop expectations for kids before they’re even born. When you have a child with a disability, those expectations change.” At the same time, “You see parents who are more anxious than they need to be. They don’t have any perspective of where their child falls compared to other kids.” Add to that the phalanxes of specialists and advocates a­vailable—often at hefty prices—to support such parents and accompany them to meetings and hearings. “An advocate’s whole business is based on finding stuff,” says the autism-school social worker. “You can have a beautiful IEP by the district, but the advocate still finds stuff. They’re working for a profit.”

James Lytle believes there’s been a sea change in how parents think about schools. “It has a lot to do,” he says, “with choices and vouchers, and parents seeing themselves as consumers rather than citizens.” In other words, they’re motivated by the needs of their kids, rather than by the public good. It’s a theory that University of Illinois-Chicago professor Pauline Lipman develops in her book The New Political Economy of Urban Education. “Neoliberals”—defined by Lipman as adherents to an ideology that promotes self-interest—“champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.” It’s the impetus behind the Gates Foundation and what Lytle calls “all those high-tech backers of school choice.” In the neoliberal view, Lipman writes, education is “a private good, an investment one makes in one’s child or oneself to ‘add value’ to better compete in the labor market, not a social good for development of individuals and society as a whole.” Instead of being public citizens, parents become “strategic consumers” of what school districts have to offer.

That’s how Charissa views Council Rock. “I see the district,” she says, “as a company.” And a parent who can get that company to pay for special services for her kid is strategic indeed.

ON A HOT AUGUST MORNING, Charissa and her husband sit at a long table in a high-ceilinged room in the Council Rock administrative offices with their lawyer, Mark Voight. Push has come to shove; this is the due-process hearing for their claim that the district has denied Erin services she needs. At the head of the table is the hearing officer, Anne Carroll. Ranged across from the Stones are the school district’s reps: attorney Grace Deon (“Council Rock has great lawyers,” more than one special-ed advocate told me); supervisor of pupil services Rudy Lamberth; school psychologist Elizabeth Lalli; a reading specialist; a speech therapist; three of Erin’s past teachers, summoned here on their summer break. “I know this is supposed to intimidate me,” Charissa whispers, “but Erin would love it. It’s like This Is Your Life!” As the proceedings begin, she pulls a framed eight-by-10 photo of Erin from her bag and sets it on the table, facing the teachers and administrators. “This is just to remind everyone what this is all about,” she announces. “My daughter, Erin Stone.”

She has an ace up her sleeve. Just two weeks ago, she had Erin evaluated by an audiologist. While most of the tests were normal, one indicated a central auditory processing disorder, a condition that can make it hard to absorb information in noisy conditions—like an elementary-school classroom. The audiologist will testify; so will the CHOP doctor, about Erin’s diagnoses of dyslexia, ADHD and anxiety disorder, along with a few conditions Charissa hadn’t mentioned to me: asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep apnea.

Over the course of four long days, witnesses will be sworn in, examined and cross-examined. Charissa will spend hours telling her daughter’s story. Chris won’t say a word. I’ve asked Charissa what he thinks of all this. “He agrees with me,” she said. “But he’s also just … he says, ‘Let it go; it will all work out.’ He understands and supports me, but I’m the one handling it all.” Her lawyer thinks their chances of winning are 50-50. Charissa estimates that Erin’s due-process hearing will cost her some $12,000.

The district’s witnesses are relentless in insisting that Erin is a normal, average kid, except for that speech impediment. Sure, she has trouble distinguishing between b’s and d’s when she writes, but so do lots of kids her age. They don’t see the problems Charissa cites—anxiety, anger, ADHD—when Erin is at school. The CHOP doctor will mention that because of Erin’s “oppositional behavior” at home, Charissa has been getting “parent training.” Grace Deon will ask the doctor about Erin’s history of “tantrums, distractibility, trouble with siblings, trouble relating to peers, hitting herself and others”: “Was this being seen in the school setting?” The doctor will answer: “That was in the home setting.”

Charissa knew what she was in for. The advocates had prepared her: The school would try to discredit her, make her out to be a bad mom. To imply she’s, well … crazy. “I don’t have any crazy clients,” Carol Steiner told me. “They sound crazy in the first phone calls we get. But they’re just determined. They’re all their children have. They’re life-and-death for their kids.”

On the last day of the hearings, Charissa makes one final appearance in the witness chair. The problem, she explains, is that the school district insists on using standardized checklists to diagnose kids’ problems. Amanda didn’t fit cookie-cutter checklists, and neither does Erin. Not her kids.

Grace Deon has a question: When teacher assignments for Goodnoe were announced over the summer, did you immediately call the principal to demand that Erin’s teacher be changed? Charissa says she did, and adds that the principal must have thought the change was a good idea, since she agreed to it. The principal couldn’t have agreed to it, Deon asks, with just a hint of edge, because she didn’t want to deal with you?

Charissa’s lawyer objects.

All these grown-ups. All this time. All this money. The late-summer sun pours through the windows of the hearing room. In two weeks, the new school year begins.

“Erin’s such a bright little girl,” Charissa tells the hearing officer, who will issue her ruling this month. “She has so much potential, so much to offer. The things that interest her are well beyond her age. But I go to the school for help, and they say, ‘Mrs. Stone, she’s average!’” She shakes her head in disbelief. “Third grade is going to be a disaster,” she says.