One enduring criticism of charter schools is that they do not address the needs of children in special education. Regardless of evidence to the contrary, it makes for a handy deflection when successful charter schools tout their achievements.
While charter school zealots must do the right thing by calling out any special education gaps or abuses in their camps, big picture people need to realize there is no good reason to localize the problem solely in charter schools.
For advocates that truly care about students with special needs the charter school preoccupation is a distracting stumble into myopia. Only about 6% of American students attend charter schools. The overwhelming majority attend traditional districts schools. Ignoring problems in America’s major school systems ignores the biggest problems.
If you are paying attention, investigations into the administration of special education programs in traditional districts are startling common. There are problems found from Baltimore to Biloxi to Beaverton.
Where are the moralizing defenders of social justice when the major sources of special education injustices happen in the schools they defend most?
Were are the unions and privileged parents that support them when vulnerable children are segregated by perceived ability, and many are sheltered into little starter prisons or education ghettos?
Where is all the outrage then? Is it reserved only for political targets like charter schools?
I hope not, especially now as an entire state is facing scrutiny for poor treatment of special education students. The Washington Post is reporting on a Federal probe into how the state of Georgia may be violating laws meant to protect special education students.
The Justice Department has accused Georgia of segregating thousands of students with behavior-related disabilities, shunting them into a program that denies them access to their non-disabled peers and to extracurricular activities and other basic amenities, including gymnasiums, libraries and appropriately certified teachers.
The department’s years-long inquiry into Georgia’s programs, and the pressure it is now putting on state officials to revamp the way they educate students with disabilities, have brought hope to advocates in the state who have long tried unsuccessfully for change.
But the department’s legal tack in the Georgia case is a sign that it is expanding an important civil rights approach into the education arena, a move that is likely to have implications nationwide, experts say.
Justice did not investigate Georgia’s lapses under the nation’s main law for protecting the interests of special education students — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Instead, the department focused on the state’s failure to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a much more powerful civil rights tool, according to legal experts.
Advocates believe that Justice’s use of ADA to press for desegregation of the Georgia program, coupled with case law emerging from courts in the past several years, will force many school districts to reexamine whether they are unlawfully segregating students with disabilities. They say it also will push schools to set a higher bar for the education that those students receive.
“For a long time we have created these segregated, separate programs,” said Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who oversaw Justice’s ADA work from 2010 to 2014. “I think with the right services and supports, we can support kids with disabilities to be in their neighborhood schools and in general ed classrooms for the overwhelming majority of their days.”
I invite all moral people to show some integrity and start acknowledging the injustices in the large, traditional schools systems. Not for political points, but because it’s the right damn thing to do.