The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes on a Different Meaning If Your Kid Has a Disability
Self-portrait by Sophie
I spotted Jay Heiler from across a crowded Pei Wei on a hot summer night in 2013. It had been years since I'd seen him last, but Heiler hadn't changed a bit, a head or two taller than the other patrons, a boyish wave in his carefully combed blond hair.
I didn't catch his eye, but I knew he'd come over to say hello, because Jay Heiler is one of the most unfailingly polite people I've ever met. Twenty years ago, he was chief of staff to then-Governor J. Fife Symington, and my colleagues and I regularly beat them both up in the pages of New Times. Still, Heiler always returned my calls.
I looked up from my chicken and broccoli and smiled.
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"And this must be Annabelle," he said, remembering the name of my older daughter, almost 12 at the time.
"No, Jay," I said, motioning to the 10-year-old across the table. "This is Sophie."
He took a closer look and for a split second, I thought Heiler might bolt from the table; maybe he'd forgotten that my younger child has Down syndrome. He recovered just as quickly and changed the subject, mentioning that he saw my "Pop" at a golf tournament, wanting to know the gossip at the newspaper.
Business is going well for you, I observed. He beamed. Yes, he said, Great Hearts Academies, the charter school company he founded after leaving Symington, was doing well, expanding into Texas next.
In many ways, Jay Heiler is the godfather of Arizona's school choice movement. During his time with Symington, he tried unsuccessfully to legalize school vouchers, then championed legislation that ultimately made Arizona the second state in the nation with charter schools.
Now, Arizona has two different kinds of public schools -- "charter" and the traditional "district." And to this day, Arizona's law still is considered one of the friendliest to charter operators. Heiler chairs the Arizona Association of Charter Schools. If anyone knows Arizona charter schools, it's Heiler. And that gave me an idea.
"Hey, Jay, I have a question for you," I said, looking over at Sophie, who was busy shoveling lo mein into her mouth.
In another year, I explained, Sophie will be done with elementary school, and I hope to find just the right fit for her for junior high. She'd been in a district school, but I was open to a charter. And I figured that if anyone would know of the perfect charter school for Sophie, it was Jay Heiler.
Have any suggestions? I asked.
Heiler nodded, not missing a beat. But he didn't mention any charter schools. Instead, he said, he'd heard there were some very good middle schools in the district where Sophie was already going to school.
Then he changed the subject again.
I didn't know it at the time, but what Jay Heiler did that night is known in education circles as "pushing out."
Legally, you can't tell a parent of a kid with a disability that the child can't attend your charter school. But you definitely can make it clear that the kid isn't wanted.
It's passive-aggressive, and it's prevalent. It was something I experienced again and again during the next year as I tried to find a charter school for Sophie.
I didn't start out pro-charter. In fact, Heiler and I had more than one run-in back in the day over his position on school choice. But parenthood can have a way of changing your politics, and by the time my older daughter, Annabelle, was ready for junior high, there were several terrific charter-school options for her. Ultimately, we sent Annabelle to an arts charter school, which so far has been a perfect fit. But Annabelle is what's known as a typical kid; she doesn't have a disability.
It was a much different experience with Sophie.
"Don't send her to our school. They'll make her sit in a room by herself all day," one special education teacher at a charter school told me.
Several explained that they'd love to have Sophie but just didn't have the right programs in place for a sixth-grader with Down syndrome.
During one school tour, I turned to the education director and asked, "So what do you think about having a kid with Down syndrome at your school?" The color drained from her face, and she sucked wind (really -- I heard it). "Well . . ." she began, clearly stalling. "Don't say anything!" I said before she could finish, mentally knocking that school off the list.
Another special education teacher advised me to pray over my decision.
And after a glance at Sophie, Jay Heiler didn't offer up a single charter school that was even an option for her.
We exchanged pleasantries that night at Pei Wei before saying goodbye, but the conversation with Heiler left a bad taste in my mouth. There are more than 500 charter schools in Arizona. How could there not be one for Sophie? I wasn't really surprised that he hadn't offered up one of his own rigorous, Great Books, Latin-immersion schools as an option for my daughter (although Great Hearts does have a Special Education section on its website, and I heard a rumor that there is actually a third-grader with Down syndrome at one of Heiler's schools -- which only makes the way he acted sting more), but I couldn't believe that Heiler -- champion of charter schools, a man with such disdain for public education in this country that he'd helped found a movement designed to create a shadow school system -- would suggest I send Sophie to a district school.
I set out to prove Heiler wrong.
In many ways, I wanted the same thing for Sophie that we'd found for Annabelle: a school with dedicated, creative teachers, small classes, an emphasis on both the arts and critical-thinking skills. Both girls wanted to know why Sophie couldn't go to school with Annabelle, but I knew in my heart that Annabelle's school wasn't right, and more than one staff member quietly had warned me against it.
No worries, I thought. I found just the right school for Annabelle. I'd find just the right one for Sophie, too.
I was terrified of junior high, particularly when it came to Sophie. If you could meet her, I think you'd understand. Sophie is smart, funny, and social, keenly aware of her surroundings, eager to learn. She's also the physical size of a small kindergartner, with about the same attention span, and an IQ that ranges from 55 to 85, depending who's doing the testing. Her math skills aren't so hot, but Sophie collects books like they're baseball cards, and she's currently writing a play. She takes ballet with typical kids, dances onstage alongside them. So far, in her almost 11 years, by and large, the challenges she hasn't met have been the ones we haven't given her.
I want to keep challenging Sophie.
I also want her to be safe and happy. I still have PTSD from my own middle-school experience. And so as I embarked on this quest to find the perfect school, the thought of tossing Sophie into a big, traditional junior high school setting with giant, sweaty boys, snotty, mean girls, and overwhelmed teachers made me crazy.
And I did go a little crazy in my quest to find a school.
I called teachers, lawmakers, administrators, lawyers -- everyone I knew in the Arizona education system. I stalked other parents at Special Olympics track meets, quizzing them about their kids' schools. I Googled for hours. I hired a consultant. I asked on girlinapartyhat.com, the blog I write about Sophie. Then I turned to the 21st-century water cooler, the surest way to find everything from a handyman to a heart surgeon: Facebook.
"Say you had a kid with Down syndrome in metro Phoenix. Where would you send her for the sixth grade?" I asked in a status update.
Finally, I expanded my Google search to "charter schools" and "special education." And then I realized what was wrong -- and how naive I'd been. This wasn't just a Phoenix issue, or an Arizona one. It was a national problem. Practically since the inception of the charter-school movement, complaints have been lodged and research conducted about the lack of special-needs students attending charters all over the country.
First, let's be clear about one thing: Charter schools are public schools, and both charters and district schools therefore are required by federal law to provide what is called FAPE, a "free and appropriate public education" to all students with disabilities.
To be fair, district schools aren't without fault when it comes to including special-needs students. School-choice proponents tout Arizona's open-enrollment policies, designed to allow kids to attend schools in districts outside their assigned residence boundaries, but the law is written to allow individual districts to make the decision to take a kid or not -- and, often, districts cap the number of kids with an IEP they'll take. (IEP stands for Individualized Education Program, the plan each qualifying special ed student must have in place.) Also, according to the Arizona Department of Education (but up for debate among civil rights law experts), even the geographically assigned school district is required to accept a kid with a disability but has the discretion to place the child at a particular school in the district, not necessarily in accordance with the parents' wishes.
FAPE means "free and appropriate public education," not "best."
But the bigger challenges are definitely in place at charter schools, and kids with disabilities aren't attending these schools in numbers proportional to district schools. Not even close. After a year of reporting, I've come up with four reasons: money, red tape, test scores, and because so few parents are willing to force the issue.
Again and again in my search for a charter school for Sophie, I heard that charters just don't get the same funding for special-needs students that district schools do. That's not true. Both the federal and state governments give both nonprofit charter and district schools money per capita for students with special needs, weighted by disability. For example, a kid with a speech delay will get his or her school less money than a kid with a mild-to-moderate intellectual disability (that's what Sophie has). The other area of reimbursement is for therapy -- including speech, physical, and occupational -- which is covered by Medicaid regardless of whether you are at a charter or district school.
But where a small charter school does have a point about funding is when it comes to economies of scale. A large, established district school can hire special education teachers to deal with their many charges; a newer charter school with just a couple of special ed students will have more trouble working with its resources. Don't get me wrong: On all levels, funding is woefully inadequate. Some experts estimate that special education is underfunded by 40 percent.
Second, there is the complicated bureaucratic landscape. The charter-school movement was created in direct response to what is viewed as a cumbersome and restrictive public education system. For example, while district schools still employ certified teachers, a charter school teacher in Arizona has no such requirement -- until it comes to special education.
Federal special ed law requires that a special education teacher be certified; this really throws a wrench in it for a charter. On top of that, an IEP involves a lot of paperwork, requires oversight, and often generates headaches. If it's not done right, the student probably won't be well-served -- and the school may be breaking the law.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools acknowledges that the special education gap is a significant problem -- so much so that it actually created another group, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, to address the issue. In a recent report, the center explained why it's important to deal with special education services:
"Based on legal actions in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and anecdotes from other cities where access and service provision are increasingly under a microscope, charter schools that fail to chart an intentional course related to students with disabilities might be subject to cumbersome regulatory burdens advanced by charter opponents."
In other words, don't do it because it's the right thing to do. Do it because otherwise, you'll have to deal with pesky regulations.
Third: test scores. These days, a school is judged by its students' performances on standardized tests. The state literally pastes a giant letter grade on the side of your school -- and it's not about how accommodating you are to kids with disabilities, or how hard your staff works. It's about how students do on tests like AIMS. Not all children with disabilities take standardized tests, but more do than you might imagine. Sophie does. And her scores are averaged in with the rest of the kids. That's not a big motivator for a high-performing school to want a kid like Sophie.
Fourth and finally, no one has done much of anything (not in Arizona, anyway) to force charter schools to comply with the law when it comes to welcoming special education students. I learned why firsthand. It's true that I probably could have figured out how to push Sophie into any of the charter schools I talked to over the last year (assuming she made it through the lottery process), but I chose not to. Why would I want my kid to attend a school where she's not wanted? To make a political point? I can't do that to my daughter.
And what about a parent who doesn't have the time and ridiculous inclination to research the charter school options in a 20-mile radius? I'm not afraid of an argument, or of hiring a lawyer to get my kid what she needs. But even I was left speechless on several occasions during my charter search. I can understand why so many other parents give up early in the process -- or never try at all.
So it's become a quiet problem. Including in Arizona, where the charter industry is booming.
Except for a few complaints buried deep in government bureaucracy, I could find almost nothing out there about the issue of Arizona charter schools failing to serve special-needs students. Repeated requests to public information officers and education-policy professors at Arizona State University went unanswered.
In fact, the most recent local research I found on the topic was a 1996 study by Joseph R. McKinney, a professor at Ball State University in Indiana. "The bottom line is that during the 1995-96 school year, only 262 children (4 percent) of the approximately 7,000 students enrolled in Arizona charter schools were served as special education students," McKinney wrote in "Charter Schools: A New Barrier for Children with Disabilities." The average number of special education students at the time was 10 percent to 12 percent, he reported.
But the current charter school/special ed problem has been well documented outside Arizona -- it's the subject of an ongoing class-action lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, a 2012 federal General Accounting Office investigation, and, recently, an op-ed in the New York Times that referenced extensive research done in New York.
"In East Harlem, data for the 2012-13 school year shows that most of the public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double -- and several have triple -- the proportion of special-needs kids of nearby charter schools," Andrea Gabor, a professor at Baruch College in New York, wrote in a piece published April 4.
Make no mistake, it's still a problem here, too. And not an insignificant one when you consider that of Arizona's 1.2 million school-age children, about 9 percent have special needs, according to the state organization Raising Special Kids.
I decided to crunch the most recent numbers I could find for Arizona. It's impossible to get the exact breakdown student by student because of privacy laws, but an analysis of district versus charter state budgets revealed huge gaps in the special-needs services provided at the two types of schools. In 2012-13, district schools spent about $763 per student on special education and related services. Charters spent $331 per kid during the same period.
I then analyzed the budget for each of the 520 charter schools in operation in 2012-13, looking specifically at four of the most profound disability areas: autism; mild/moderate/severe intellectual disability; multiple disability; and multiple disability with severe sensory impairment. Of the 520 schools, 273 didn't serve a single child with any of those diagnoses during that entire school year.
The GAO study from 2012 also revealed a discrepancy in the overall numbers of special-needs students served at charter versus district schools, both nationally and in Arizona. And that research raised another troubling statistic. When charters did serve special-needs students, the GAO reported, they served them in disproportionately large numbers. The GAO documented that in almost 12 percent of charter schools nationwide, more than 20 percent of the student population had a disability that qualified them for special ed services.
Metro Phoenix now has two charter schools that are designed to pretty much exclusively serve children with autism. And Jay Heiler finally got his vouchers, now called Empowerment Savings Accounts, that go to kids with special needs whose parents can't find public (district or charter) options and want to send them to private schools that serve kids with special needs. Or home school.
There are plenty of schools that educate children with profound special needs and even more, like the school my older daughter attends, that cater to the high-achieving child. But what about Sophie, who thrives when she's mainstreamed with typical kids her own age?
In a state that prides itself on offering the nation's best in school choice, the options are shrinking in at least one category -- and, increasingly, special-needs kids are educated separately from their typical peers.
It's the new segregation.
Clint Bolick has a different name for what's going on: "product specialization." If Jay Heiler is the godfather of Arizona's charter-school movement, Bolick has earned a whack at the title on a national level. As head of litigation for the Goldwater Institute, Bolick has argued school-choice cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and has been influential in the movement at just about every stage.
He sits on the boards of both Great Hearts Academies and the BASIS schools (the latter had two of the top 10 schools in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings last month), and Bolick says his biggest personal challenge was deciding whether to send his own high-achieving children to Great Hearts or Basis. (The kids chose BASIS.)
"I don't know what I'd do if our kids had a different set of needs," he admits.
And what if product specialization doesn't happen on every level? What if there isn't a charter school that specializes in mainstreaming kids with special needs?
"That may be why we will always have district public schools," Bolick says -- to provide services other schools haven't opened to provide.
Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's former superintendent of public instruction who's now a well-respected local and national consultant and leader on education issues, has a different perspective. Keegan admits this might be because she has a nephew with special needs whom she's watched try to navigate the education system. She's proud of a lot of what's been accomplished by the school-choice movement, but not when it comes to special education.
"To me, there's no excuse," Keegan says. "The charter school movement is a public school movement, and this movement has not forwarded the interests of special-needs kids."
Special education laws in this country -- when enforced -- really are pretty awesome. Technically speaking, the public school system is supposed to collaborate with parents and other members of a child's team (including teachers and a parent) to create a custom-designed plan -- an Individualized Education Program -- to ensure success, a living, legal document that can be changed at any time to reflect new needs.
And it's all supposed to happen without concern for cost. Really.
Yeah, you're thinking, and unicorns exist. But it's true. That's pretty much what the law requires. Of course, making it happen can be tricky. But it's true that special education law (in theory, anyway) has come a long way in a short time. So far, that reality often can't keep up.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court took the first fundamental step in ending segregation based on race and ethnic background with its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That ushered in the Civil Rights Era and, years later, the notion that kids with special needs should -- and could -- be integrated into regular education settings. The simple idea that these kids should attend regular public schools did way more than simply put special-needs kids in the classroom; it helped to get them out of institutions and introduced them to their peers.
Many people recognize that the extended Kennedy family was hugely influential in the developmental disability community (John F. Kennedy's sister, Rosemary, was mentally retarded) because of the creation of the Special Olympics. But JFK also deserves credit for pushing for special education during his presidency. At the end of the Eisenhower administration, a federal law was passed that funded training for teachers instructing students with mental retardation (the accepted terminology at the time). Kennedy championed the increase of public awareness and expansion of federal laws to govern special education. Kennedy's administration created the Division of Handicapped Children and Youth under the U.S. Department of Education.
In the '60s, it was a numbers game -- namely, increasing the number of special-needs kids served in public schools. In an eight-year span, the number of school districts with special education programs increased from 3,641 to 6,711. In a three-year period, the number of teachers in special-needs schools and institutions went from 71,000 to 82,000.
That didn't mean the services provided were so hot. Far from it. For pretty much the first time, the idea occurred to more than a few do-gooders that developmentally disabled children had a right to an education. It was an obvious important first step, as states passed laws creating special education policies, and communities began to recognize the contributions of the developmentally disabled and other people with special needs.
In a 1964 textbook for teachers titled A Time for Teaching, Willard Abraham, an education professor at ASU, reported that "trends in the education of mentally retarded children are encouraging."
"We have come a long way since the Middle Ages, when children and adults like these were the court fools and were denounced as 'evil spirits,' and since the days when persecutions were the rule," he writes. "But our public and our teachers have . . . to accept the fact that children limited in mentality can be educated or trained."
By 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 1 in 5 children with disabilities (both physical and mental) were enrolled in public schools. Indeed, it took more than the legacy of an empathetic president and a sideways glance from the civil rights movement to cause much change. It took two landmark class-action lawsuits.
The first, Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, was filed in 1971 by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia over a state law that said Pennsylvania didn't have to educate any child who hadn't reached the "mental age" of 5 by first grade. That lawsuit quickly ended in a consent decree in which the state agreed to provide a free public education to mentally retarded children.
The second lawsuit, Mills v. the Board of Education of the District of Columbia, was decided in favor of the plaintiffs, as well, and specifically declared that money is no object in the education of mentally retarded and mentally ill children. Both cases provided impetus for Congress to pass the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. The law mimicked language from the court cases and was the first sweeping legislation passed to ensure appropriate education of these children. It serves as the framework for the current law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 1997 (note the change from Handicapped to Disabilities).
The basic message: Figure out how to educate these kids alongside their peers, without regard for how much it costs. Of course, it's way more complicated than that -- hundreds of pages of complicated, including several re-authorizations by Congress to tweak the law. And then came charter schools. Special education law applies to all public schools -- both charter and district -- but many charters manage to wiggle out of it by pushing out special-needs students. Hence, the new segregation.
Hope Kirsch, a special education lawyer in Scottsdale, has noticed it. Kirsch says she taught school in New York from 1975 to the early '90s. She was assigned to work with special-needs children; inevitably, she recalls, her classroom was in the school basement or the top floor, "shoved away, very segregated."
She became a lawyer and was delighted to see strides made in special education later in the '90s and in the 2000s, in which special-needs kids were mainstreamed in the classroom with typical kids -- something she says was good for all. But that, she says, has been short-lived, ironically because of school choice.
"We're going back to the days of institutionalization," Kirsch says.
My challenge to educate Sophie began even before she was old enough to attend public school.
When she was 2, I began looking for a preschool/childcare option that would be both safe and enriching. Sophie was the first person with Down syndrome I'd ever met, and in 2003, the year she was born, doctor no longer told you to institutionalize your baby with DS. To the contrary, the advice from all quarters was to put her alongside her typical peers as much as possible. That's called inclusion and depending on the specific circumstances, it's widely considered a good thing for both disabled and non-disabled kids.
Frustrated with a lack of quality among some of the childcare centers I'd visited, I figured I'd go for broke. I called Awakening Seed, a prestigious, expensive private school well-known in Phoenix as the place where progressive, well-educated parents sent their children from an early age.
I was shocked when the owner informed me: "We don't take children with Down syndrome" and then told me to call the state, which offers the services I was looking for. (The state doesn't, by the way.)
From then on, I learned not to take any placement for granted. But that's not to say we didn't have tremendous luck. The Child Development Lab at ASU had never had a child with Down syndrome in its program, as far as I knew, but Sophie was accepted with open arms and thrived there. Yes, it was a challenge as other kids learned to walk, potty trained and stopped using sign language while my child lagged in those areas. But her language and social skills developed quickly and, eventually, Sophie did walk, talk, and go to the bathroom on her own.
Tempe Elementary School District has a fantastic preschool program that mixes special-needs kids with typical peers, and by the end, the staff was telling us that Sophie was one of the brightest kids with Down syndrome they'd ever met.
But their formal recommendation was for her to attend a school in the district with a pull-out program for kids with special needs, rather than our neighborhood school, which Sophie's sister Annabelle already attended.
I held my breath and held my ground. Sophie was enrolled at the neighborhood school. We had a bumpy start. At one of the first meetings with her teachers, therapists, and principal, I complained that the kindergartner-to-adult ratio on the playground at lunch was 100 to 1. Would anybody be able to watch Sophie during the 15-minute lunch recess?
The principal looked up from her BlackBerry long enough to remark that if Sophie couldn't act like a typical kid, we'd need to look for a placement at another school in the district.
I blinked back tears, refrained from using (too many) expletives, went home, and solved the problem my way. If the school wouldn't give Sophie extra help, I would. I got on the phone and started hiring. All that year and well into the next, a series of ASU education students showed up at the school to "volunteer" -- all in Sophie's class. I paid them hourly, under the table.
No one asked questions. It worked. Sophie was safe and able to attend school with her sister and the kids from our neighborhood. On the fourth day of kindergarten, she made a friend, a typical girl named Sarah.
"Sarah's the youngest of four kids," the teacher told me. "I think she's looking to be a big sister. This is good for both of them."
And how. Six years later, Sophie and Sarah still are best friends -- an odd couple, since Sophie is the smallest fifth-grader and Sarah's among the tallest. The girls are inseparable.
Eventually, my makeshift "volunteer" system didn't work anymore. Sophie needed professional help. So when she was in third grade, I hired a lawyer and fought to get her a classroom aide, who worked with Sophie when she needed the help but "pulled back" to assist with other tasks in the classroom and the school when she did not. I'm so glad I did it -- in my mind, at least, that allowed Sophie to be safe at a place that has so much to offer.
The other day, Sophie asked her dad to print the lyrics to the song "Counting Stars," explaining that she and her choir teacher were working on a private musical arrangement. From the front-desk staff to the crossing guards, she has her rituals with everyone -- most importantly, her kindergarten teacher, who six years later still expects Sophie for a daily cuddle and puts lotion on her chapped skin.
That original BlackBerry-obsessed principal eventually retired, replaced by a man I can only describe as my daughter's soul mate. Until recently, when she announced she has a new favorite color, he wore purple to school every Thursday, just to make her smile.
Sophie's elementary school experience hasn't only been about social interactions. We've had some challenges in terms of accommodations and curriculum, but for the most part, she's been included in regular classrooms as much as possible and makes genuine progress on her academic goals.
One thing that's always stunned me is that Sophie takes standardized tests along with her typical peers. For the past three years, she's taken the AIMS test -- albeit with accommodations for breaks and extra time -- but she takes the same test the rest of the kids do.
Every time we have an IEP meeting, I pose the question again, because I'm so befuddled by it. I asked it again last month:
"So Sophie takes the test the same as the other kids, and her test scores are averaged in with the rest of the school's scores, which determine the school's grade?"
Around the table, heads nodded.
"Why on Earth would any school want a kid who brings their average down?"
The district's lawyer chuckled. "Well," she said, almost under her breath, "Sophie does better than some of the typical kids."
That was nice to hear, I suppose, but it was no guarantee that another school would feel the same way -- and make accommodations for Sophie, test scores and all.
I called Hugh Hallman to ask him how he handled such things while he was headmaster at Tempe Preparatory Academy, a charter school. The former mayor of Tempe retired last year as headmaster. He's running for state treasurer, in large part, he says, because he wants to clean up Arizona's education-funding mess.
Hallman admitted that he took the job as headmaster to work with high achievers, but wound up being most rewarded by the kids who struggled.
"As a public school, we have a sacred obligation. My work and most of my time was spent on how better to deliver to the students who were most challenged by our curriculum," he says.
"We built additional programs that are not funded in any way by additional public dollars to make sure that every student who was admitted can make his or her way through what is acknowledged to be one of the toughest curricula in the state. My proudest moment was seeing students who struggled through their entire career receive their diploma."
It was an inspiring conversation. Tempe Prep keeps class sizes at or below 22 students, teachers instruct only four classes a day, and Hallman discouraged spending money on the latest technology -- choosing instead to focus on personnel, including extra tutoring for kids who needed it.
So where should I send Sophie? I asked Hallman, after describing our situation. He didn't hesitate. "Tempe Prep."
And I might have considered it, if Hallman still were headmaster.
To be honest, I was feeling less and less confident in charter schools. I requested complaints about charters from both the state Department of Education and U.S. Department of Education Division of Civil Rights going back several years. They didn't make for particularly inspiring reading material.
I realized while reviewing the federal complaints how hard it is to make something stick. Take, for example, a complaint filed against Carden Traditional School in Surprise in 2011.
By the fourth day of kindergarten, it was clear that things weren't going well for one little boy. According to the complaint filed by his father, he had vomited in class and had behavior issues. The parents met with the assistant principal, special education teacher, and others to discuss it.
From the father's complaint:
"The special education specialist spoke the most, and she simply said [the child] was an 'extreme case,' and that the school did not have the facilities or teachers to meet his needs, and that a public school would be better for him."
In his complaint, the father expressed the opinion that the school had a legal obligation to educate the boy.
In the Civil Rights Division's conclusion, the investigator wrote: "You identified the assistant principal and special education coordinator as the individuals who stated that the school did not have adequate resources to accommodate your son's disability. When we interviewed them, they both denied that they or anyone else said this during the meeting."
Case closed. The father's complaint was dismissed.
All the state complaints I read, on the other hand, were found to have merit. They included charter schools that held incomplete IEP meetings and didn't fulfill IEP requirements. According to one complaint, a school had listed a special education classroom as a place where services would be given, but the investigation revealed that the school had no such space. At another school, the special education teacher was so frustrated that she filed a complaint herself -- saying she was in charge of 350 students (a ridiculous number, obviously).
At another school, IEPs were written with duplicate goals (meaning the same goal was given to multiple children, clearly without personalizing plans), goals were deemed inappropriate by investigators, and, in one instance, speech therapy was given over the phone.
Schools went for years sometimes with no special education teacher, and in one case, years passed during which no special education services were given to a child with mild intellectual disabilities.
The most significant case -- which has special education lawyers all across Arizona buzzing -- involves a finding by an administrative judge that Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy denied appropriate IEP services to a girl there, not diagnosing or treating anxiety, reading and learning disorders, including dyslexia. The judge ordered FALA to pay more than $100,000 in tuition at a private school; the case settled for an undisclosed amount, says the family's attorney, Hope Kirsch.
Kirsch can't discuss the specifics of the settlement, she says, but she can talk about special education and charter schools. She sees a pattern of non-compliance.
"They just don't always have the resources," Kirsch says. "That's no excuse."
She spoke to a parent recently whose kid hadn't had an IEP since 2012. Some charter schools don't have attorneys, she says. Many charter schools need training.
"I think that sometimes . . . they just don't understand their legal obligations," she says.
As for telling a parent a school is a bad fit or doesn't have adequate services?
"It's not legal to say that," Kirsch says. "It's saying, 'We don't want you here.'"
In the end, I took some advice from a friend, who left a comment on my blog.
"Where are her friends going? It would be so nice for Sophie to go from strength to strength instead of starting over."
How could I have been so stupid? I wondered. For Sophie, the cliché is so true -- it's taken a village. And her village includes her friends, the classmates she's literally grown up with. Suddenly, I knew what I needed to do.
I e-mailed the principal at Sophie's current school and asked him to put the wheels in motion to get her enrolled at the neighborhood junior high, the "feeder school." The principal was delighted -- and so kind. He brought Sophie to the new school himself for a tour, helped choose just the right liaison for her transition, took a separate trip to the junior high to personally introduce my husband and me to the new principal and special education staff.
The school is big and a little scary (to me, anyway). But there's a cheerleading squad that Sophie can join, and her classroom aide agreed to follow her to junior high.
There's just one problem. A few years ago, in response to declining enrollment because of charter schools (parents like me pulling kids like Annabelle and putting them into charters), the school district began combatting the problem by opening specialized schools and programs designed to hold on to kids -- particularly high-achieving kids.
One of these schools is an "international academy" with small classes, an emphasis on critical-thinking skills, and a strong suggestion that incoming students have As and Bs. There is no special education department to serve a kid like Sophie. It happens to be located right across the street from her current school.
During one of my transition meetings with Sophie's principal, he admitted that almost the entire fifth grade at her school will be going to the academy, rather than the feeder junior high.
And so Sophie will go off to junior high alone. There's just one other child I know of who will definitely be going with her.
The other little girl in her class with Down syndrome.
Amy Silverman is Managing Editor of Phoenix New Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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