In Grade 1, Sophia could not read the word “cat.” But when her mom told her to go to sleep, she protested that her teddy bear was keeping her up – “he’s nocturnal,” she said. She invented elaborate creative worlds, but struggled with simple math. Her parents, professionals who raised her in a home full of books, hoped, as Sophia’s teachers reassured them, that these were simply signs of a busy brain taking a longer path.
But their best efforts could not move her past a stumbling C-A-T. “It felt like all the thoughts were there, but it wasn’t coming out,” says Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Bell, who is now working on her PhD in Toronto. (Sophia’s father is a political consultant with a graduate degree from Yale University.)
Psychological testing did not produce a clear diagnosis, and her school, with its well-meaning individual-learning plan, could do only so much to help. “There was a special-ed teacher who did a lot of colouring,” Ms. Bell recalls. “We just knew that they wouldn’t be able to really answer her needs.”
At first, her parents sent Sophia twice a week to a private tutor with expertise in dyslexia. But when she came home from school calling herself stupid and banging her head against the wall in frustration, her parents decided that it was time to go further. Now 10 and attending a Toronto private school with small classes and one-on-one help, Sophia still reads below grade level, but is steadily improving.
Despite the financial sacrifice, fighting a shorthanded public system seemed the costlier long-term option: “If we imagined the trajectory of our daughter – she would have been unhappy, low-achieving and possibly permanently damaged.” Instead, “it’s the first time in our lives we have a child who can’t wait for the weekend to be over.”
Should Sophia stay at her private school, her parents will quickly surpass $100,000 paying for her education. That is roughly the amount that the Supreme Court of Canada awarded to Jeffrey Moore’s family this month after they sued the province of British Columbia and the North Vancouver school board to recoup the money they paid for private school after the board closed a program for dyslexia that Mr. Moore – now 24, and working as a plumber – would have attended in Grade 4.
The ramifications of the unanimous decision go far beyond one family’s tuition bills. Already, there is a class-action suit in the works to bring more claims against B.C. school boards. Similar actions probably can be expected in other provinces from the families of students with all kinds of special needs. And while this case involved private school, it’s not clear that other costs, such as tutoring or private testing, would be excluded.
The Supreme Court ruling is part of a larger cultural shift toward accommodating difference, in classrooms and in the workplace. It comes at a time when our understanding of learning issues has grown, thanks to child-development and brain research, and the social stigma that once kept families silent has lessened.
What it makes clear: When a province promises equal education for all students, school boards must deliver – not just an equality of opportunity but a real striving for equally positive outcomes for all, at least within each person’s limits.
But there is so much it does not address: What does equality in the classroom look like in practice? Where is the money to pay for it? And what might get lost in the process?
What should worry school boards is that there are a lot of unhappy parents. According to a 2006 report by Statistics Canada, while the majority of parents felt their children’s needs were being met in school, close to half said they had experienced difficulty arranging special education, especially in smaller communities. About 25 per cent of the parents in the study said they had a child needing special help who was not getting any – whether from education assistants, laptops, or more time writing exams.
The Supreme Court ruling was clear: Budget constraints are not an excuse to cut help for these students. Considering the legislated responsibility, as defined in the B.C. School Act, to ensure that “all learners” meet their individual potential, Madam Justice Rosalie Abella wrote in the decision: “Adequate special education, therefore, is not a dispensable luxury.”
The evidence is certain that early intervention and support are essential to academic success. And as learning-disabilities expert Judith Wiener puts it, “It’s either pay now or pay later.” When these kids do not get help, they are more likely to grow up to be underemployed, to struggle with mental-health issues or to end up in jail.
“Jeffrey Moore is now a plumber paying taxes. Jeffrey Moore without a proper education might be unemployed and on the dole,” says Dr. Wiener, who works at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.