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Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: Students with Disabilities: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Parents with students who have disabilities are troubled by the problems their children face in public schools. They may turn to charter schools believing they will finally get the services they find lacking in public school.

But charter schools are not an acceptable answer in most cases. We’ve known for years that students with disabilities are often excluded from charter schools where there’s inclusion. In schools where there’s segregation (only students with disabilities) children may not have qualified teachers. Nor do they get to socialize with their non-disabled peers.

This is especially disturbing since parents of students with disabilities are supposed to have a legal right to appropriate services. Their children should have access to the least restrictive environment with appropriate Individual Educational Plans in their public schools.

While charter schools are not viable, underfunded public schools are plagued with overcrowded inclusion classes, unsympathetic district and school administrators, teachers with inappropriate credentials, or no program support for students. Many states and local school districts intentionally deny students services.

Similarly, it’s common knowledge that charter schools reject students with disabilities, if not outright, they counsel students out. In 2014, Education Next, a conservative publication supportive of choice, raised concerns that charter schools were not serving children with disabilities.

Texas

The State of Texas provides a blatant example of this. For years, in order to cut costs, they placed illegal caps on how many students could receive special education services. Many students missed out on what the district owed them. Even after this was discovered, the Texas Education Agency has refused to do what’s best for students. A recent report indicates that the TEA, run by a superintendent who was never a teacher and is pro privatization, still denies students with disabilities the services they require by law.

While the State of Texas promotes choice and charters, charters aren’t fulfilling the needs of students with disabilities either. Parents have to fight for services in charters like they have to fight for services in traditional public schools.

In response to the investigation, Texas lawmakers banned the cap in 2017, while the U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to stop the practice and make amends in January 2018.

Since then, the percentage of children getting special ed services has barely inched up — it’s still under 10% statewide in 2019. But charter schools have made even less improvement. For the 2018-19 school year, only about 7% of students at Texas charters received special ed services, like tutoring or counseling. That’s half the national rate of 14%.    

New Orleans

After Katrina, New Orleans converted its public schools to mostly charters. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit charging that the charters there did not serve students with disabilities. A Big Easy report indicated many problems with charters, including fraud and administrators telling students to stay home.

In 2014, as a result of that suit,  those schools were supposed to be followed closely by the state Department of Education to keep track of how charter schools in New Orleans identified, served, and disciplined students with special needs.

This past November three charter schools were found not to be in compliance by the Louisiana Department of Education. The charters must correct the problems or their charter terms could be reduced when they come up for renewal. That might sound legitimately strict on schools, but if those schools close, where will students with disabilities go? Why after all this time are charter schools still not performing well when it comes to students with disabilities?

Teacher Qualifications

Are charter school teachers who serve students with disabilities required to have state teacher certification? It depends on where you live, and state rules can be sketchy (see page 5).

Some states emphasize credentials, but they highlight alternative routes to get teachers into the classroom. Since there’s a teacher shortage, this can be a problem for both charter and traditional public schools.

Some parents find that a charter school might give their child attention, and that support means everything to them. But unless there’s pre and post test assessment, it’s difficult to see if the student has made academic gains.

Also, if the charter school is overseen by the local school district the chances are higher that teachers will be certified to teach. But parents should look into this carefully.

Some charters provide transportation, while others rely on the local school district. Transportation can be a problem for students with disabilities.

There will invariably be a parent or parents who praise the charter school where they placed their child, but they usually offer little if any proof that their child is succeeding or making academic or social gains.

Where’s Betsy DeVos?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should be ensuring that public schools offer a continuum of services with well-prepared teachers. Inclusion classes should provide support to general education teachers with special education teachers as co-teachers.

Parents with children who have learning disabilities must receive the school support that was promised them forty-five years ago! There’s no excuse for those in educational leadership positions at whatever level to deny students their rights.

Parents are left with little support. They don’t have time or money to invest in getting an attorney. Even if they organize a class action suit, by the time they get their day in court precious time has passed for their child. They want services and they want services now.

Vouchers that lead to unvetted charter schools are found in several states. In Florida there’s the McKay Scholarship Program. But charter schools in Florida are less than ideal, and the word is that parents who get vouchers there place their children in unregulated parochial schools that offer little in the way of special education.

Betsy DeVos continues to highlight Education Freedom, but there’s no freedom when there are no services for students with disabilities. Parents and their children are still left between a rock and a hard place.

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authored two books, Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and Losing America’s Schools: The Fight to Reclaim Public Education (Rowman & Littlefield,...