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At the Chalk Face: The Privatization of Special Education

Like so much else in education and beyond, we are seeing the familiar pattern of defunding, claiming crisis, and then calling for privatization in special education.

This past week in Chicago, our unelected Board of Education recently voted to expand contracts with private, for-profit organizations to meet the growing needs of our children with special needs as well as at-risk populations.

Of course, this move is nothing new in the world of special education.  In Illinois, there are a multitude of private operators (both non-profit and for-profit, though the tax status is mostly irrelevant in practice.)  Some of these schools are beautiful places.  Some have lovely sounding websites, covering up truly horrible, poorly-run warehouses for students with special needs.  But they are almost all very very expensive.

In fact, as these schools expand in number, investors understand there is a huge profit margin to be had on the backs of these vulnerable students.   Districts, by federal law, must pay for these placements if it is determined to be the best environment for the student.

But in order to ensure growth in this hot growing sector, special education services in public facilities must fail.  And failing they are in many places.  IDEA has never, in its history been fully-funded, but schools get punished for non-compliance all the same.  And as school budgets continue to shrink, special education services, very pricey services indeed, are often the first to go.

Children as Liabilities

As “choice” and accountability grow, students with special needs become the biggest liabilities for a school’s “success”. (And we all know “success” in today’s world is defined by test scores. And of course, many students with special needs will never display high test scores despite the amazing growth they may be experiencing.)  Schools are coming up with all types of creative new ways to exclude or push out our neediest students.  If that’s what “innovation” means, count me out.  And charters are often the worst offenders because they are allowed to be the worst offenders.

As the great blogger and retired teacher Fred Klonsky points out in his piece All Hell Breaks Loose When Illinois Charters are Told to Stop Discriminating, charter supporters KNOW charters’ so-called “success” is based primarily on the exclusion of the neediest and most expensive to educate.

Republican Sen. David Luechtefeld (R-Okawville) spoke up.  “One reason charter schools were set up in the first place was to give them that flexibility because a lot of things were not happening that needed to happen in the public school system.”

Flexibility to turn away students with Special Needs and non-English speakers.

Luechtefeld added, that if we take away the right of charters to turn away Special Needs students then charters would be “no different than the public school system and therefore … obsolete.”

Yes, charters would be obsolete.  And good riddance.  Then perhaps the extra funds going to these schools serving less-needy students could be redirected back to where it’s needed most.  But special education in our public, non-charter schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods and schools which serve large numbers of children of color, have never been funded for success.  And so we’ve seen a history of contentious legal battles of parents fighting to get services for their kids.  Parents with the means, connections, and social capital have gotten their kids into these private special education schools, but at great cost to the districts.

And the kids left behind are worse off than ever.  ,

Destroying a Highly-Qualified Labor Force

As more and more alternative and special education schools are being run by private management (whether charter operators, private therapeutic day schools, or various for-profit alternative schools, some virtual), I am concerned about future of my profession as a special educator.  Almost without exception, these schools pay their staff at significantly lower rates in nonunionized working conditions.  I have looked into working in these schools, and invariably I find I cannot chose to work there because of pay.  Plus, as many schools are for-profit, teachers would not even be given the option of student loan forgiveness, despite working with the neediest population of students in some of the toughest working conditions imaginable.

Who will ever choose special education as this privatization trend continues?  Public school special education services are being intentionally and drastically underfunded leading to horrible working conditions and private operators pay ridiculously low wages while not guaranteeing better work environments.  I see a continuing “shortage” in special education positions leading to more uncertified, undertrained novices-such as Teach For America provides-in our classrooms drastically decreasing educational opportunity for our neediest kids.

Dire Consequences

And I wonder how else these privatization efforts will ultimately affect the quality of services kids receive.  In a sense, if nothing else, these private schools remove our most fragile kids from the truly cruel accountability testing craze our education system is floundering under. Kids with special needs are by far the ones hurt the most from the standardized testing, sorting, and ranking schemes for they are the ones at the bottom.  They are labeled the “failures”.  Their teachers are most vulnerable to becoming casualties of bad evaluation systems based on faulty test scores or horrid merit pay schemes.  But kids shouldn’t have to leave the public system to be spared truly awful policy.

The inequalities in educational opportunity will only increase as the privatization of special education increases.   Kids of parents with means and connections will get their kids into expensive, specialized schools.  Under-regulated charter, contract, and private operators will provide piss-poor service to needy students in the typical “race to the bottom” of free marketplace capitalism.  And the neediest of the needy-kids in the foster care system, kids experiencing homelessness or food insecurity, kids with the highest multiple needs-will be left to suffer in schools given the least resources.  And the newest reiteration of a legacy of discrimination and segregation will fall hard upon our student with special needs.

Another Way

Some simple questions.  What if ALL schools were fully-funded to be meet ALL kids’ needs?  What if schools were allowed flexibility to creatively teach all learners?  What if students, teachers, and schools weren’t cowering under accountability laws guaranteed to hurt students with special needs?  What if schools weren’t allowed to place uncertified novices in special education classrooms? What if there wasn’t every perverse incentive to push out the neediest kids?  What if we stopped ranking and praising schools that practice the worst exclusion policies?  What if hateful discrimination were called out every place it exists?

We could change the way we do special education erasing the need for outside private providers.  Places like Chicago could copy what some districts have done to create fully-public, far easier to access, unionized specialized schools.  But then I guess no one would get rich.  And we might have to invest in dreaded public, unionized schools and serve populations we’d rather throw away. Silly me, I forgot we don’t enact policies in this country that only serve to help children.

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Katie Osgood

Katie Osgood is a special education teacher in Chicago currently working at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught special education in the Chicago Public ...