Charlie Crist’s running mate reminds special needs parents what we’re up against

AAs a parent of a child with special needs and an activist fighting for freedom of education for decades, I thought I had seen it all. That was until I saw
a video
by Karla Hernandez-Mats, a teachers’ union official who was tapped by Democratic Florida gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist as his running mate.

At a recent event, Hernandez-Mats was videotaped speaking about her work as a “fast teacher.” She proudly noted that her studies focused on “emotionally challenged” students — and then the punchline. “That alone qualifies me to deal with the dysfunctional legislature,” she said. The loud laughter and cheers in that room was a gut punch.

My son Samuel was born with multiple disabilities including Down Syndrome. To our family, he was just Sam – our sweet, caring boy. But for the educational institute he was an inconvenience and a burden. Day after day, I would take him to the neighborhood public school only to get a call telling me to pick him up earlier because it “wasn’t working.” Getting through those times was hard enough. The idea of ​​his teachers making jokes at his expense is almost unbearable.

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People with disabilities did not choose their disability. They deserve educational opportunities that hit them where they are, and their struggles are certainly not something to be taken lightly or used for political ends. Hernandez-Mats’ decision is a reminder of how little the education system respects the students it sees as a burden.

When my kids started school, there were no relief programs in Ohio. Our family spent thousands of dollars of our own money on tutoring and therapy after Sam got home. It wasn’t time to be a family and my husband and I were scared of getting up every morning to start the process over. One day I had enough and decided to try something else. I pulled Sam out of public school and started looking for a better alternative and asked my state to support families like me. It took years, but we finally found success in 2011 when Ohio passed the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship Program.

Our story is one that countless families and students in Florida can relate to. The public education system is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and fortunately, state leaders in Florida, Ohio and other states have recognized that school choice helps families find the education that is best for their children.

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But Hernandez-Mats, whose union opposes school choice and the expansion of alternative education, reminds us what we are dealing with. Opponents of educational freedom want to trap our children in a system that too often abandons them and treats them like a burden—or worse, a punch line.

Crist’s decision to run alongside Hernandez-Mats is a betrayal of him
past support
for school choice and the families dependent on it. The union of which she is a member has campaigned at every turn against the expansion of school choice, even suing to try to shut down Florida’s freedom of education program in 2016. More than 10,000 students and families traveled hundreds of miles to get there
the lawsuit. Since then, the parent army has only gotten stronger.

If the lawsuit had been successful, more than 80,000 poor, mostly minority children would have been expelled from their schools and forced back into the public school system. But instead they’ve had years of opportunity and aren’t going back.

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Choosing a school has changed the life of my son and my family. I no longer felt like an opponent, but to whoever was in the driving seat in raising my child. Even better, Sam started waking up every day excited to learn something. He was once told he was the most demanding student in his public school. At his private school, his teachers told us that he was the only student who asked for more homework every day. His world had actually opened up.

It is deeply insulting that Hernandez-Mats would take disabled children like my son lightly. But even more troubling is her desire to trap her in an education system when it fails her. Florida families deserve better.

Tera Myers is a Special Needs Families Counselor for the American Federation for Children and a longtime advocate for school choice.

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