Where does school choice meet the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act [IDEA]?  Educational reformers should take steps to ensure that children with disabilities are included in policy reforms.

Families of kids with disabilities are waiting for reforms.  When is it our turn?  Louisiana Charter School Law speaks to the purpose of the legislation.  It reads:

“Finally, it is the intention of the legislature that the best interests of at-risk pupils shall be the overriding consideration in implementing the provisions of this Chapter.”

Special needs kids are defined in this law as at risk pupils.  However, schools are being allowed to discriminate against children with disabilities.  Schools have been allowed to become charter schools in Louisiana who have policies for entry criteria that would exclude children with disabilities.  Some schools have been allowed to have student academic retention criteria that exclude children with disabilities.  Some schools  also often lack the ability to provide accessible spaces.

Because the charter proliferation has resulted in competition for students, it has had the unintended consequence of making it not beneficial for charter schools to accept students with disabilities.  Children with disabilities are often more expensive to educate and have a negative impact on the school’s performance scores (SPS).

This has created environment where parents have been turned away before even applying to a school.  Many families find that schools don’t have the services their children need.  Children are pushed out of  some schools due to poor academic performance or behavior performance. There are many issues for families of children with disabilities that center around access to quality public schools.  They include access to school transportation at a time when education reforms have eliminated neighborhood schools.  Parents are constantly being contacted during the school day because of the school’s inability to serve the child often exacerbating student behavior challenges.

The Louisiana Department of Education does not collect the data in a format that would uncover the kinds of problems parents are experiencing.  We need a way of collecting data on every student  that  applies to a charter school or that leaves  a charter school.  The state should track who applies for schools and where and why families are being turned away.   Within the Recovery School District, there is a common application process.  Parents can apply to over 70 different schools.  For many of the most successful schools that maintain entry criteria, the application deadlines occurs well before the publicizing of the common application process.  There are parents who are turned away even before being given an application.

The challenge is to end discrimination, segregation, abuse, and the violation of children with disabilities.  The strongest advocates for the defense of our rights can come from the very same parents being affected.  We want to make things better in a systemic way.

We’ve engaged the political process by working to come up with a model compliance plan in a bill we had  filed with the state legislature.  In the application to become a charter school, this plan will force the charter operator to think through how they will provide services to children with disabilities.  If they do, this they will be better prepared to deliver these services when children show up at their door.  Sadly, we were met with opposition from the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools at every turn.  The provision to have a model master plan for complying with federal laws was stripped from the bill that eventually passed.

In order to support our case, we needed data.  We collaborated with a local research reform group to get some of our questions answered.  Any data collection system used by education agencies should clearly depict any IDEA category of exceptionality.  Do they serve a variety of exceptionalities is the question for schools when they indicate they have a student with a disability.

If there is to be an experiment with charters, there has to be a system to collect data so that the impact of changes can be accessed on a variety of students.  If schools are not serving a certain category of children, the state needs to have process where they intervene.  In New Orleans, a school was flagged as having too few students with disabilities.  When up for charter renewal, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education continued their charter anyway.  Another school showed a low percentage of students with disabilities.  Instead of triggering an investigation, the school was simply flagged.

Before charters, the only schools in New Orleans that had less than 5% of students with disabilities were Magnet schools with selective entry requirements.  Clearly the admissions criteria at these schools also discriminated against students with disabilities.

Charter schools must operate with transparency and be accountable to families in this system.  A charter advocate said that we can count the number of due process hearings for students with disabilities, 99 percent never make it to the due process stage.

We, as parents, work to have to a visible presence in the community and the media, raising issues to show what parents are going through so that decision and policy makers don’t lose site of kids.

New Orleans newspaper, The Times Picayune, reported on March 29, 2010:

“New Orleans parents complain that charter schools are leaving most vulnerable students behind”

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA] may promulgate the chartering of more  schools across the country.  What are the implications for children with disabilities?  How do we ensure that parents of children with disabilities have access to choice?

If there is to be a proliferation of charter schools we have to review the states policy to make sure they don’t discriminate against students with disabilities.  In the charter authorization process, candidates need to be able to demonstrate that they have the knowledge and capacity to serve families of children with disabilities.

If states accept education dollars, they should be held accountable.  We want to see states come up with policies to ensure that charter schools have the capacity to provide a continuum of special education supports and services.

Also related:

Special -Needs Students File Complaint Against Louisiana Department of Education

Southern Poverty Law Center Files Suit Against the Louisiana Department of Education

Newsweek Article on Charter Schools and Special Education