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Special Education and School Choice: Not Great Choices, If Any

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Years of school reforms have stripped public schools of disability services, creating problems for parents (See Carl Peterson’s recent Exterminating Special Education). Parents may turn to charter, parochial or private schools, online learning, or homeschooling, only to find choices lacking, or the school may not want their child, leaving parents in the lurch.

Charter Schools

Choice advocates continue to market charter schools and vouchers to end public education. Neither has shown innovation despite the years they’ve been around, especially for students with disabilities, and they rarely are proven better than public schools.

By law, charters should conform to federal laws and regulations: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but charter schools get around these requirements.

Enrollment 

Mommandi and Welner wrote School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment, and the National Education and Policy Center describes their book and this problem.

…current charter laws have set up a system of incentives and disincentives that encourage charter school operators to pursue students who are high-scoring and cost less to educate. Many charter schools respond to these competitive incentives by controlling access to shape enrollment through a variety of practices that occur before, during, and after charter school enrollment including marketing, burdensome application processes, and exclusionary discipline.

Charter schools accept more children with mild disabilities but reject students with moderate to severe disabilities.

The lack of class inclusion is also a concern. This is observable in states like California, where fewer students with disabilities attend charters.

There was actually one charter school that we looked at, but they reviewed my son’s IEP. …They were honest with us. They said they didn’t really think it would be the best fit for him. And the way they ran their program, it really wouldn’t have been a good fit. I don’t think they really cater to kids on the spectrum. I mean, they say they accept people with IEPs and stuff, but it really wouldn’t have fit my son’s needs. And my son is considered more high functioning than anything, but even still, it wouldn’t be a good fit for him, but they at least told me that. They said they wouldn’t deny anyone, but I didn’t want to see him struggle either. So, we didn’t go ahead with that choice (p.15).”

Teacher Quality

Do teachers in charter schools have professional backgrounds in working with students with disabilities? Here’s a 2018 state analysis.

Charter schools have ruled New Orleans since Katrina and 2019, where only 50.3% of teachers are certified. Many students never received special education services, despite a lawsuit.

New Orleans continues to have problems accommodating students with disabilities.

Lauren Winkler, a senior staff attorney for the SPLC children’s rights project, said the implementation of federal and state special education laws has been “scattershot” since Hurricane Katrina and the transition to an all-charter system.

Charter schools around the country vary in the services they provide and teachers who are prepared to teach their children, leaving parents with an inconsistent national program.

Misuse of Vouchers

Vouchers also leave students with disabilities vulnerable. Many prestigious private schools reject students with disabilities. A 2006 study found that African American and Hispanic families disproportionately used the Florida McKay Scholarship Program, vouchers for students with disabilities, to choose religious programs. How well do those schools provide services for children with disabilities?

Parochial Schools

Little research exists about special education and parochial schools, but church leaders worry about what they lack when serving children with disabilities.

Lane (2017) describes Christian school organizations that address special education: the Lutheran Special Education Ministries, the Christian Learning Center, and National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

A 2020 report by the Association of Christian Schools International asked those working at religious schools about the availability and accessibility of special education services in their schools. They found that 40% have students whose needs exceed/are not met by their special education offerings, and 55% reported charging additional fees for services.

IDEA should provide private and parochial schools with some public school services, which raises Separation of Church and State concerns (Osborne, DiMattio, & Russo, 1998).

Contracting with Public Schools

Parochial schools might contract with public schools for student on-site services, but this may not help parents dissatisfied with public schools.

Parents might be more inclined to get their children a faith-based education, but this may mean students will miss the academic instruction they need.

Private Schools

Private schools might offer special education but not inclusion. Parents might tell of acceptance and significant academic gains, they want their choice to work, but most private schools are not publically accountable.

Vouchers Without Accountability

According to a 2017 Education Week report about a mother who struggled unsuccessfully to get her child private school assistance with a voucher, Florida’s private schools collected $832 million in 2016 for tuition, paid by public money and tax credits for businesses. In 2021, Gov. DeSantis expanded private school funding by $200 million. Despite such funding, those schools are not required to accept all children.

Like charter schools, private school teachers don’t always have to be certified to teach students with disabilities in private schools. For example, Virginia’s requirements state private school teachers don’t need state certification, but an outside approved accrediting association may provide its requirements for teacher credentials.

The Center for Education Policy states:

The services and support guaranteed to that student by IDEA are now offered at the private school’s discretion with little oversight or accountability. For special education advocates and families of students with disabilities, this often-unknown consequence of accepting a private school voucher is a growing concern. Since most special education voucher programs—and private schools—are not required to meet the same rigorous accountability and transparency requirements of public schools, these vouchers raise additional concerns. As policymakers and education leaders consider using vouchers as a way to assist students with disabilities and their families, they will need research to better understand the impact of these policies.

Private or parochial school quality often relies on smaller classes and individual student assistance, but there’s little public accountability built into the process.

Online Schools

The pandemic exemplified the need for children with disabilities to have face-to-face, in-person instruction with their teachers.

Entrepreneurs may sell cyber learning like it’s proven, and there are many out there, but there’s little evidence that a steady technology diet works for any student, let alone a child with disabilities.

School reform and budget cuts have not been kind to special education in public schools. Frustrated with the lack of services their school provides, sometimes parents turn to homeschool, or they may prefer it for other reasons.

Homeschooling, States, and IDEA

Homeschooling students with disabilities doesn’t mean parents and students will benefit from IDEA, but every state is different. Here’s an overview. It’s critical to search for online information by state.

Parents must learn their rights to help their students benefit from what’s available. Students may access auxiliary services like speech therapy provided through the state’s non-public school option.

Parents might also connect with other homeschool parents so that children can socialize with peers.

In general, school choices for students with disabilities are lacking, and many parents simply wish that their public schools would provide the free appropriate public education their children deserve.

Lane, J.M. (2017). Special Education Staffing and Service Models in Christian Schools. Journal of Research on Christian Education, 26(3), 225-236. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10656219.2017.1384709?needAccess=true

Osborne, A.G., Jr., DiMattio, P. & Russo, C.J. (1998). Legal Considerations in Providing Special Education Services in Parochial Schools. Exceptional Children, 64(3), 385-394. https://web.s.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=66b7765c-d90b-41d0-8487-d7f856991d21%40redis.

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