The Speechless Strategy

Moving to a better school district for Special Education and disability services for Students with Disabilities

Sometime in November of 2020 my patience with my kid’s old school district snapped.

It was time to move.

It was time to take the same advice I’d been giving other parents of disabled kids for years.

It was time to implement “The Speechless Strategy”.

Speechless was a sitcom on ABC that ran from 2016 to 2018. It was the one of the first sitcoms to focus on a disabled person. The setup of the series is that JJ, a young man with cerebral palsy, and his family move into “the worst house in the best school district”.

That’s our plan (not the worst house part, we love our new home).

The “Special Education” Education Gap

Until you’ve experienced “Special Education” for your disabled child, you probably have no idea what it is or how it works. As a child in the 1970s California education system, my sole awareness of “Special Education” was that there was a “short bus” and some kids who we never saw (they probably weren’t in the yearbook even – a problem that still exists).

That was supposed to change with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975.

Before then, too many disabled kids were excluded from public education. I was fine (though very near-sited) and ten years old when the law passed.

Serious problems persist. IDEA has never been adequately funded. This aggravates existing prejudice and discrimination and so education for disabled students lags – badly.

There aren’t national numbers, but I’ll give you the numbers for California in 2019 (COVID made the 2020 data pretty worthless):

California English Language Arts Education Metrics for Students with Disabilities (2019):

3,189,965 total students, 2.1 points below state standard on average

420,092 students with disabilities, 88.1 points below state standard

NOTE: Students “progress” by around 27 points per year so a very incorrect way of looking at the data is that Students With Disabilities are around 3 years behind their peers.

NOTE 2: The California’s Education Department somehow categorizes this as “Orange” meaning that it doesn’t require state intervention…. which tells you something about our state education department.

California Mathematics Education Metrics for Disabled Students (2019):

3,183,085 total students, 33.5 below state standard (which should be embarrassing, but isn’t even commented on by our Legislature, Governor, or State Superintendent)

417,191 students with disabilities, 119.4 points below state standard

California College/Career Readiness Metrics for Students with Disabilities (2019):

A California metric for high school seniors.

504,059 total students, 44.1 percent prepared (Mind boggling that no one is talking about this)

59,064 students with disabilities, 10.8 percent prepared.

California kind of sucks for “special education” for disabled kids…

I’m a California native, so it depresses me to say this, but California is pretty terrible for students with disabilities compared to other states. There isn’t cross-state academic data, but on one of the most important metrics, inclusion, California is one of the most segregated states (most students with disabilities not spending time with their peers). When last I looked, we were sitting at around 19 percent of students with disabilities in segregated environments for most of the day, compared to a national average of 13 percent and leading states at around 5 percent.

So, almost 4 times worse than the best states in the country.

My old school district was even worse than California’s dismal average with over 26 percent of disabled students in segregated classrooms.

… and that wasn’t enough for me to leave (yet)… though I did start talking to the school board and had to hire a lawyer to fight to get my son included in general education (the power of privilege, I know).

Private Schools and Charter Schools are rarely an option for disabled students

Moving to a better school district isn’t an uncommon tactic for parents everywhere, but for parents of a student with disabilities, the stakes are much higher. While other kids can go to private schools or charter schools, kids with disabilities don’t have that choice.

Many private schools either actively discriminate against disabled students or the cost of paying for the services and supports that a disabled student needs (in addition to private school tuition) are prohibitive.


Many private schools and charter that “target” students with disabilities are themselves quite segregated – they cater to disabled students only and so, if you want your child to have an inclusive education experience, you are out of luck.

Now, there are some charter schools and private schools that welcome disabled students, provide adequate services and supports, and are inclusive with a mix of disabled and non-disabled students. Unfortunately, they are the rare exception.

“Much Better is Possible” in our public schools for disabled students

Within a year of “experiencing” special education, I became an advocate for changing the system. I organized a school board candidates forum on disability issues and started going to school board meetings. I began to learn the numbers. I was shocked. We experienced our first explicit discrimination incident (that we recognized). But, we stuck it out. Until the straw came that “broke the camel’s back”. We’d had enough. Looking forward to 7 more years of fighting our local school district was too much.

Time to dust off those numbers. The best public school district, by far, for students with disabilities on the San Francisco Peninsula:

Palo Alto Unified School District

I discovered the huge gap in performance when I was running the numbers on local school districts in 2017-18. At that time, I was more optimistic. What the numbers showed was:


Whether it is money, teachers, leadership, community involvement… radically better performance for students with disabilities (really all students) is possible. I don’t think there is an “magic” involved.


We can have excellent public schools for everyone.

Palo Alto English Language Arts Education Metrics for Disabled Students (2019):

5,711 total students, 78.8 points above state standard on average

557 students with disabilities, 17.9 points below state standard

NOTE: An improvement of more than 70 points! “2 years” using my terrible metric.

Palo Alto Mathematics Education Metrics for Students with Disabilities (2019):

5,683 total students, 83.2 above  state standard.

553 students with disabilities, 25.7 points below state standard.

Note: An improvement of 93.7 points … 3 years!

Palo Alto College/Career Readiness for Students with Disabilities (2019) :

A California metric for high school seniors.

1,000 total students, 74.2 percent prepared

97 students with disabilities, 24.7 percent prepared. Still scary, but a big improvement.

The Speechless Strategy for better education for student with disabilities

Time to move. We rent, so moving was easier. I’ve actually had friends who own their homes do this as well, They rent out their house in our old district and rent a house in the new one.

The process is pretty simple (at least to describe).

1.   Research and identify better school districts for students with disabilities.

The data is there, but there aren’t “cool tools” for special education kids to easily compare districts and schools (really, it is the school districts that drive special education performance more than individual schools… individual school data is also harder to get as the numbers of students with disabilities gets small enough that privacy considerations (as well as variability of disabilities) makes the numbers less useful (though the state COULD do this analysis).

There is actual data required under IDEA that is available down to the individual school district level, but, unlike for other students, it is only provided as a DOCX file (previously a PDF) instead of a searchable database (contact me if you’d like to help change this).

… and it isn’t easy to find… but I did find it for California (if you know where it is for other states or need help finding it, shoot me a note!).

California Special Education IDEA Data by School District.

2.  Move.

Nothing magic. Research and move.

… then help me make this unnecessary.

Much better is possible and we can have excellent education for everyone.

Questions or Comments?

This is super important to me and I know this whole topic is challenging. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I really want to make it easier to find them… and make things a lot better.

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