Academia

Baby Geniuses

Vouchers for prodigies?

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What do you do when you're a single mother trying to get by on a schoolteacher's salary while scrambling to feed the ravenous educational needs of your brainiac son, who read novels in a second language by age 6, attended community college courses at 7, passed the high school proficiency exam at 9, and entered UCLA at age 12?

In the case of Leila Levy, you butt heads with bureaucrats. The Los Angeles Unified School District repeatedly threw obstacles in her son Levi's way, initially refusing to test his abilities (because he was too young) and to place him in higher-grade classes (ditto). Now it's insisting, based on the state truancy law, that Levi stay in school until age 16–even though Leila can't afford full tuition at UCLA. "This woman was a basket case when she came in," says her attorney, Richard Ackerman. "I've never seen anybody so frustrated with bureaucracy in all my life."

Now that the 14-year-old Levi is in college, Leila's lawyer is trying a new tack: getting the state to pay for his tuition. California doesn't just require children under 16 to be in school; the state's constitution says state-provided education must be "suitable" for the child.

Among other things, Ackerman is claiming UCLA tuition actually is cheaper than the per-student cost of educating most 14-year-olds. "All they need to do is write out the same check they would have if he was a special ed student with extraordinary needs," he says.

Barring that, Leila is suing California to create a voucher to pay for the neglected needs of extremely gifted kids. "This case," Ackerman says, "has the opportunity to overhaul the system."