Longform

The New Segregation: School Choice in AZ Takes on a Different Meaning If Your Kid Has a Disability

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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.'"

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.