Education reform must include students with disabilities

Andrea Kadlec
Director of Community Relations

Among the advocacy positions generated at this year's Washington State Parent Teacher Association (PTA) legislative assembly, is the proposal to allow operation of public charter schools.  Yet where innovation and bolstered test scores may await the minds of select at-risk students, those with disabilities may be met with segregation, or altogether exclusion from charter school doors.

Charter schools are designed to remedy public education’s failure to close the achievement gap.  This is the test score gap between students who are failing and those passing standardized tests.

Students disproportionately affected by the achievement gap are those deemed ‘at-risk,’ primarily students of color and students who live in poverty; but not necessarily students with disabilities. Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) found in its 2010 report card, “entrenched racial and income disparities for all subjects tested, at all grades.”

And while Washington is making overall gains, the gap persists.

According to the state PTA’s 2011 proposed statement, only one in ten students attend a Washington school that is ranked “very good” or “exemplary” by the State Board of Education’s 2010 Achievement Index.  As many of six out of ten students attend a school ranked as “struggling” or “fair.” 

The charter school idea then, is to give at-risk students an opportunity to attend exemplary schools, subsequently bridging the achievement gap.

The concept fuses choice, local control, accountability and opportunity to families and students who currently attend failing or mediocre schools. Depending on how the state structures charter school qualification -- via a sort of lottery system and/or other qualifying criteria -- students could attend a publicly-funded school where the administration is afforded flexibility in hiring and firing teachers, choosing curricula, and structuring its school day.  Charter schools nationwide boast higher graduation rates, test scores, and more college enrollment post graduation than other public schools that may operate mere blocks away. 

For students with disabilities, however, charter schools may limit access to education. Earlier this week NPR shared the story of Tres Whitlock, a 17-year-old aspiring video game designer turned away from a computer-oriented charter school because of his cerebral palsy.  Whitlock is not alone, according to the article, which cites 86 percent of Florida charter schools do not have any students with severe disabilities.

Similarly, this PBS Newshour segment highlights three Indiana-based charter schools, one with a military focus, one that selects students with high GPAs and test scores and no expulsions, and a private school that says it cannot serve students with significant disabilities. 

There are charter schools that have been developed exclusively around a specific disability, as in the case of this New York-based school designed for students with autism featured in an April 2011, MacNeil Lehrer clip, Demand for educational resources for children outstrips supply.

The result is a lottery where some families win highly specialized curriculum in an entirely-segregated setting.  Families who don’t make the lottery, are left to struggle in public schools where their needs, according to parents, are not met.

The lottery is the acceptance method of choice for what many deem top-notch charter schools, such as the Harlem Academy of Success, featured in education reform documentaries, The Lottery, and Waiting for Superman.  The selection method draws ire from charter school opponents, who wonder why some students find access to a world-class education, where others are left to fend for their own in failing schools. 

The notion that charter schools will generate incentive or inspire public schools to perform better, they say, is a myth, as per pupil dollars and educational resources languish further in already failing schools, because students who can, flee their doors.

Others claim charter schools are an interim solution, or a means to larger educational reform that is taking too long and costing US tax dollars and potential wage earnings. Educational system advocates like Microsoft chairman Bill Gates claim the current system is costing America a viable future, rendering many US students incapable of competing in a global economy.

And now it seems the debate is settling squarely in Washington State. While many impoverished children or students of color vie for an education to engage an evolving world, students with disabilities are left with less lofty, and ever-threatened objectives:  a shot at basic economic security, a job that provides a living wage, autonomy with independent living, but before all of that, and most importantly, a place at the table. 

As this debate emerges, it is critical that policymakers, parents and educators are mindful of the education needs of students with disabilities, before charter schools are implemented. This includes planning for students with significantly-involved disabilities, those who almost qualify for special education but may be falling through the cracks, and those who are gifted but need accommodations or specially-designed instruction. 

If education reform in Washington follows other states in this fundamental misstep, and does not factor students with disabilities into the 'at-risk' equation, charter school implementation could further ostracize, discriminate and segregate students with disabilities.  And our achievement gap will remain ever entrenched.