Do Charter Schools Have a Place for Disabled Students?

Charter schools are exploding in popularity throughout the nation, yet they're not without controversy. In the past few months, charter schools in a variety of cities have been plagued with accusations of discrimination against students with disabilities. It turns out that the free market nature of charter schools may be the root of the alleged discrimination.

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Charter Schools Under Fire

In New Orleans, charter schools are seen as the cure to the city's struggling public schools in the years since Hurricane Katrina. They offer parents the possibility of choosing between diverse options of specialized, creatively-run schools. Currently, 70% of New Orleans students attend charters, which have been supported by Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and the Walton family, founders of Wal-Mart.

Yet these schools are now facing a class-action lawsuit brought by ten families that accuses them of discriminating against students with disabilities. Charter schools are bound by the same rules governing traditional public schools, which include an obligation to provide services for all students, including those with special needs. Yet the lawsuit alleges that the schools have abandoned their responsibilities.

There have been scattered reports that corroborate this claim. For example, one school recommended that a girl with depression be expelled after she was cutting herself in class. In another school, a special education coordinator was instructed to stop speaking with parents. Why? Because she told them that they weren't receiving the services to which they were entitled.

New Orleans' charter schools aren't alone in this controversy. Similar accusations have been made against charter schools in Washington, D.C. In the nation's capital, special education advocates filed a complaint in May that argued that the city's charter schools were steering disabled students to expensive private schools. Despite 29,000 students attending the 52 charter schools in Washington, traditional public schools continue to serve the majority of students with significant special needs.

Behind the Discrimination

While charter schools are required to be open to all students, their motivations for excluding disabled students are clear. Serving disabled students requires more money than non-disabled students. Schools must create an individual plan for each disabled student Also, whenever possible, they must be placed in regular classrooms and provided with an aide. Furthermore, since disabled students tend to perform more poorly on standardized tests, a school can improve its overall scoring by limiting the number of these students they enroll.

Therefore, when these students are denied admission to a charter school, the school can save money and increase its prestige. In cities like New Orleans, where parents must battle with an often-frustrating application process, it's difficult to know why a particular child is denied admission. Yet with increased scrutiny, parents of disabled students hope to gain the same equal access to charter schools that their children have earned in traditional public schools.

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