In some ways, this is the wrong question to ask. As nonprofits, after all, how in the world do we pay for anything? Many prayers, generous donors, and perhaps a bit of luck. But budgets are often seen as reflections of our values. As Christian schools, we value our faith, our people, our teaching, and our communities; educational support services demonstrates every one of those values.
That said, funding is a very real challenge and one that our boards demand we answer. The first and easiest response to this is by doing the math of whole family tuitions. Most parents don’t really want to send their kids to different schools based on ability; they want to keep their family at one school. The math gets even more compelling when you look at families with three or four kids – would you rather put some extra resources behind one of those kids, or lose all four enrollments?
Put another way, we can invest the money on the front end to meeting kids where their needs are, or we can go through the depressing process of cutting back and scaling down after we keep losing enrollments. When 12.9% of all students in the public schools have a disability of some kind, to turn away these students limits our recruitment pool not just for the student with a disability, but often limits us from their siblings as well.
Investing in educational support services is an investment in retention as well as recruitment; we cannot forget that students change as they age. As a parent, I have no idea what’s in store for my child academically as he/she gets older. Perhaps they will show signs of a learning disability. Perhaps they will experience a traumatic brain injury from playing sports. It is folly to think that every student we enroll will perform consistently from grades K-5, 6-8, or 9-12. You know already that every day is a new challenge, every student is unexpected, and every year is new in so many ways. Why would we expect that the services our students need will remain in one tidy box when it comes to cognitive, emotional, or behavioral ability? Show – and tell – your incoming parents that you will serve their child well, whatever comes, because you serve every one of your students well.
One of the questions we need to address is the myth of ‘public school resources’ – this idea we seem to pass around and reinforce that students with disabilities will be better served in the public school. The fact is, the public school doesn’t necessarily have more resources than you do, and they are more constricted by laws and regulation than you are. They don’t have your freedom to see every student as a child of God, and to teach accordingly. How can public school resources hold a candle to that?
Finally, keep in mind that inclusive education often costs less than you might at first think; and, there are ways to get more funds. When you have the right structures and plans in place, many students, even with high needs, don’t require full-time one-on-one aides. Trust that donors will respond to an inclusive vision to your school. You can qualify for Title II funding to help underwrite professional development and, for example, CLC Network’s services. Because your educational support services are there for everyone, please, don’t just charge more to those receiving services. Tell everyone why education support services are essential to your mission, and the resources will be available.
Let’s replace the title question to this blog with, can we afford not to enroll students with disabilities? For the sake of our schools and our faith, we must welcome a wider range of abilities in our students.
Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the executive director of All Belong, where she serves as a champion for ability inclusion in schools and churches. Her training is in fundraising and nonprofit administration, serving at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago for nine years, and at All Belong since 2012. Her calling to All Belong and advocacy for places of belonging are the backbone to her thoughtful and creative leadership of an organization that is transforming communities nationwide. Elizabeth has a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University and is currently studying for her Master’s degree at Grand Valley State University.