Finding Where You Fit: Limitations for Students with Disabilities within the School Choice System
By Corinne Kentor
Proponents of school choice argue that providing individualized educational models through magnet themes, voucher programs, and charter networks empowers parents and students to find their personal “best fit.” However, the rise of “no excuses” charter schools presents a dilemma for individuals with disabilities, who are implicitly and explicitly excluded from certain educational environments. This phenomenon reveals one of the central limitations of “school choice,” demonstrating the factors that limit the free expression of choice for marginalized individuals exhibiting emotional and cognitive disabilities. This paper will focus on charter schools that specifically market strict disciplinary policies and will explore how students with disabilities are included in and excluded from these environments.
Key terms: “no excuses,” neurodiversity, disability, special needs, special education, “school culture,” “fit.”
The following analysis includes a review of cogent literary sources dealing with the history of the charter school movement, as well as emergent analyses of the treatment of students with disabilities in disciplinary structures. The information and recommendations presented combine theoretical research with a review of journalistic sources dealing with the recent backlash against “no excuses” charter schools in an attempt to identify how public response to school discipline might inform our understanding of the relationship between bias, normativity, and school culture. To make best use of this online format, I have linked to several of these articles throughout my analysis, which provide a public context for the issues under discussion.
A Brief Overview of “School Choice” and the Rise of the Modern Charter School
In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, former policy maker and educational critic Diane Ravitch traces the origin of the school choice model, as well as its growing influence in the United States. As Ravitch explains, the motivation backing school choice initiatives has shifted over time. In the 1950s and 60s, “choice” was used as a proxy for the re-segregation of southern public schools; the very concept of “freedom of choice” was “tainted by [its] use as a conscious strategy to maintain state-sponsored segregation” (Ravitch 2010). Moving forward, the notion of choice was reframed by the writing of scholars like Milton Friedman, who were among the first to suggest a market-based approach to public education. Friedman and his colleagues envisioned a system in which schools helped to fulfill “the ultimate objective of society” by “maximiz[ing] the freedom of the individual or the family” through subsidized vouchers, which would allow underprivileged students to enroll in private institutions (Ravitch 2010). Over the course of the 20th century, school choice systems were conceptualized as a means of empowering students and their parents and, at the same time, as a new approach to social and fiscal accountability inspired by the idea of a naturalized free-market economy.
While contemporary proponents of the choice model continue to laud concepts of parent/student voice and natural accountability, “school choice” in the 21st century has expanded beyond Friedman’s original conceptual framework. Initially, “school choice” was designed to uphold the primacy of the individual. Today, the movement is geared more toward expanding how education is approached on a systemic level. The obliquely celebrated “individual” still motivates many modern choice proponents, but contemporary reforms focus increasingly on the development and selection of individualized school cultures. This culture model is explicitly distinct from the “catch-all” nature of the public education system, which, in accordance with American laws, traditions, and philosophies, is designed to serve any and all students in the United States (Yell 1998).
In part, this shift is due to the exponential rise of charter schools and charter networks. Like Friedman’s voucher program, charter schools were initially designed to “break the iron grip of the adult interest groups, unleash the positive power of competition, and achieve academic excellence” overall (Ravitch 2010). Under this system, motivated private organizations and collectives could establish a new school supported by public funds and held accountable to basic performance standards. As Ravitch explains, charters could be “run by for-profit firms or by nonprofit organizations,” and the renewal of their charter would ultimately depend on whether or not they demonstrated the success and sustainability of their individual pedagogical model (Ravitch 2010). Like vouchers, charters were designed to hold schools accountable not to standards or mandates, but to the parents who would actively choose to enroll their children. However, unlike vouchers, which simply helped students navigate among public and private institutions, charters were also developed to allow educators to change the homogenous face of public education, and to fund some of the “best new ideas” coming to classrooms across the United States.
While early charter schools, established under a model introduced by Albert Shanker in the 1990s, were designed to give educators on the ground floor more administrative autonomy, modern charters are run (and, in part, funded) by increasingly diverse groups, from corporate behemoths, to hedge funds, to dynamic and independent taste-makers (Cohen 2015). Beyond this shift in governance and leadership, what distinguishes the charter school of the 21st century from the charter school of the 1990s is primarily the express incorporation of “school culture,” which is designated by the managing group or individual and written in to the charter’s mission statement.
As the management of charter networks has diversified, the importance of “school culture” has increased. Charter leaders include former school teachers, as well as hedge fund managers, politicians, and businessmen, among others (Strauss 2014). In some cases, experienced educators will bond together and apply for a school charter to ensure their autonomy and to develop team-based leadership practices (Ravitch 2010). In other instances, though, charter communities will form around an ambiguous philosophy or a rational business model. These charters do not reflect Shanker’s ideal of “teacher-led autonomous schools within schools…tasked with solving important problems of pedagogy and curriculum” (Ravitch 2010). Instead, modern charters uphold the emerging concept of “innovative education” more broadly. In these cases, “innovation,” rather than empowering teachers to make administrative decisions, is cultivated from the outside in.
Choice proponents posit that this diversification continues to uphold parent and student autonomy by allowing families a “shop” for the “best fit” institution. While charters were initially designed to put private and public dollars behind innovative educators, they have since been re-conceptualized as a means of diversifying the different types of schools included in the American public education system. However, not all individuals are afforded the same set of options (Strauss 2014). Rather than increasing choice, the express incorporation of school culture, in some cases, works to exclude students who do not fit a charter’s particular model.
“No excuses” charter schools, for example, utilize a strict disciplinary structure that disadvantages students who struggle to adapt to the self-described “militaristic” expectations placed upon them. While leaders in these institutions are quick to assert the superiority of their model (indeed, some have encouraged the public to imagine a future in which every urban school is a “no excuses” charter school), they also acknowledge the fact that not every child will “fit” the school’s distinctive culture. In particular, students with emotional or cognitive disabilities often fail to attain the appropriate level of acculturation that will allow them to succeed in a “no excuses” environment (McKinney 2016). By covertly excluding students under the guise of “fit” and “culture,” these schools limit the choices of individuals with disabilities, countering one of the underlying motivations of the school choice movement, which is designed to hold schools to higher standards and, at the same time, to empower previously disempowered groups.
In the following pages, I will explore how no excuses charter schools interact with students with disabilities and/or students exhibiting “neurodiversity.” I will investigate (1) the responsibilities of the public school system to provide adequate services to students with disabilities, (2) how concepts of “school culture” in some cases serve to exclude these individuals, and (3) which factors are influencing the treatment of students with disabilities in the charter school system.
A Qualification: It is important to note that charter schools vary widely in their style and in their enrollment statistics. There are certainly some individual charter schools (and, indeed, entire networks) that help to serve students with disabilities. These schools work hard to meet the diverse needs of their student body, investing substantial material and immaterial resources in specialized programming and services. However, there are also many charter schools that, through a combination of practice and policy, are failing to adequately serve this marginalized subset of American students and families. I will attempt to outline how these schools reflect on a larger systemic strain placed on individuals with disabilities. While there are clear exceptions to the generalizations I will make in this analysis, I have chosen to focus on charter schools that exemplify a trend of exclusion that compromises the ideals of the school choice system as a whole, demonstrating how the model fails to measure up to the paragon of student and parent autonomy lauded by choice proponents.
What is Required? A brief overview of disability legislation
Right around the time that Albert Shanker began promoting a new form of charter-supported schooling, the U.S. federal government took a substantial step toward supporting the educational rights of students with disabilities. Until 1990, the rights of these students were protected largely by Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EACHA or EHA), a piece of legislation passed in the 1970s that provided funding for basic special education services. The EHA explicitly outlined the rights of parents to dispute how children with disabilities were being treated and/or supported in the public school environment (Lipsky and Alan 1997). This provision ultimately became an important component of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was implemented in 1990. The IDEA is, technically speaking, a reauthorization of the EHA, only with a new name and several important developments dealing with the rights of students with disabilities and/or students who require special services to succeed in school (Lipsky and Alan 1997).
Briefly, the IDEA covers the official identification of students with disabilities, as well as the legal responsibility of schools to provide adequate support for these individuals (Yell 1998). Both in its earlier iteration as the EHA and in its contemporary form, this act has focused on transmitting information to parents and families about disability rights and providing them with a clear pathway for self-advocacy. The EHA implemented a policy requiring “that all handicapped children be identified, evaluated, and offered educational services,” a specification that recognized children with disabilities as an underserved population and strove to correct that imbalance (Levesque 2014). When the EHA transformed into the IDEA in 1990, the legal language became even more explicit, requiring schools to provide “a free appropriate public education” that included “special education and related services designed to meet [the] unique needs [of students with disabilities]” and that established means of measuring “the effectiveness of efforts to educate children with disabilities” (IDEA 20 U.S.C.A. 1400 2004). Later, an amendment to the IDEA underscored the importance of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) “based on peer-reviewed research” that would ensure students with special needs were offered a well-designed and personalized course of instruction (Levesque 2014). This addendum recognized the diversity inherent among students with disabilities and strove to protect a child’s right to individualized instruction.
Above all else, the EHA and the IDEA aimed to dismantle the stigma associated with disability in schools and, at the same time, to ensure that marginalized students were receiving the services to which they were legally entitled as citizens of the United States (Annino 1999). Over the last forty years, legal legislation dealing with the rights of students with disabilities in public schools has been primarily motivated by the desire to “foster inclusion” within the American public education system (Levesque 2014). In the next section, we will explore how some charter schools undermine this mission through strict disciplinary policies that covertly exclude neurodiverse individuals.
Understanding Disability Rights Within the School Choice System
Though it was designed and implemented in a different educational era, the IDEA still protects the rights of students with disabilities in the emerging choice-based school system. According to Sec. 300.208-209, charter schools founded under the purview of the local education agency (LEA) are required to “serve children with disabilities…in the same manner” as their public counterparts (IDEA Sec.300.208-209 2004). However, charter schools enroll significantly fewer students with special needs (Strauss 2014). In some cases, charter schools will directly deny a student enrollment based on his or her disciplinary record, a practice that targets students prone to disruptive behaviors (Estes 2000). In other cases, charter school administrators might suggest that the child simply falls outside of the purview of their particular instructional model, utilizing oblique concepts of “fit” and “school culture” to discourage parents from enrolling students with disabilities. The rising import of “no excuses” culture augments the influence of these practices, excluding students with disabilities from a growing number of publically funded institutions and limiting their agency within the school choice system.
Figures 1-2: Two examples of under-enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools, as compared with local public schools, featuring data gleaned from examination of school choice systems in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Recently, several large charter networks have come under fire for employing extreme disciplinary tactics. Three of the best known networks—Success Academy, Achievement First, and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP)—self identify as “no excuses” schools. Under the “no excuses” model, teachers and administrators require their students to adhere to strict codes of conduct. Eva Moskowitz, the founder and director of Success Academy, posits that schools are responsible for “convey[ing] the critical message to students and parents that certain behavior is inconsistent with being a member of the school community,” invoking language related to belonging and collective responsibility (Moskowitz 2015). Moskowitz raises cogent concerns about the violence and in-fighting that disrupts the school day and limits the ability of an educator to “ensure a nurturing and productive learning environment” (Moskowitz 2015). These arguments reflect the real concerns of real teachers and leaders, who are tasked with establishing a safe space for their students.
However, the discipline model that Mozkowitz outlines, which is in vogue in many “no excuses” charter networks, does not merely aim to impose order and reduce instances of physical violence. Rather, the tactics employed in charter networks like Success Academy, which often self-identify as “militaristic,” generate an expectation of orderliness that undermines the authentic experience of various students with special needs. In particular, the “no excuses” model does not accommodate neurodiversity within the student body and excludes the experiences of individuals diagnosed with emotional or behavioral disorders. Disciplinarian charter schools ask students to embody various physical and behavioral habits: to be successful, students must sit in a certain way, follow specific conduct codes, and limit their emotional expressions (or, to use the pejorative term, “outbursts”). In other words, students are expected to master physical, verbal, and temperamental routines. For many young people who exhibit emotional disabilities—such as those on the autism spectrum—these expectations are not merely difficult to master; oftentimes, such a behavioral paragon falls outside the non-normative behavior practices that are important components of the way a child with special needs communicates with and responds to surrounding people and stimuli (Picciuto 2016).
As Moskowitz’s commentary exemplifies, charter schools often take great pride in an individualized pedagogical approach, which is directly tied to a system of behavior or social interaction. While this model can certainly serve many students, and serve them well, students with emotional and cognitive disabilities struggle to fit in to such a rigid culture. Students with severe disabilities rarely enroll in these schools to begin with, as they are deemed a poor “fit” for the charter model (Zollers and Ramanathan 1998). Most troubling, however, are the non-classified students—those who have not been specifically identified as students with special needs, but who nonetheless exhibit behaviors “no excuses” schools deem objectionable—who enroll and then fail to adapt to the culture of a particular charter. These students often find themselves the subject of excessive disciplinary action.
A poignant contemporary example comes from a recent New York Times article by Kate Taylor, which describes a young girl enrolled at a Success Academy charter school who “struggled to adjust to [the school’s] strict rules” and “racked up demerits for not following directions or keeping her hands folded in her lap” (Taylor 2015). Her name was ultimately “one of 16 placed on a list” created by the school principal identifying certain students as “Got to Go” scholars (Taylor 2015). The list, which sparked outrage in the larger charter community, was categorically condemned by several leaders. However, the motivation behind the principal’s action was staunchly upheld. Success Academy continues to tout its disciplinary policies, with Moskowitz explaining, “even very young students can be dangerous” and require extreme interventions (Jorgensen 2016). Success Academy’s infamous “Got to Go” list epitomizes the way in which the concept of “school culture” has been conflated, in many cases, with impractical policies that only serve a small subset of students who are already “exemplary” scholars from a disciplinary standpoint.
Within this framework, students exhibiting neurodiversity are sometimes forced out of a particular school under the guise of “fit.” Zollers and Ramanathan ascribe situations like these in part to a growing practice of “out counseling,” in which discriminatory enrollment practices are disguised as conversations about fit and student success. These conversations can range from the overt—Zollers and Ramanathan describe one parent who was told that the school “really couldn’t deal with this kind of kid” and would probably “just kick him out later”—to the implicit (Zollers and Ramanathan 1998). Some students, like those on Success Academy’s “Got to Go” list, are simply singled out for discipline over and over and over again, until parents decide to voluntarily withdraw their children and to place them in a more welcoming environment. In other cases, administrators or counselors will expressly advise parents to find a school that will offer a more appropriate “culture” for their child.
In January of this year, 13 families filed an official complaint against the Success Academy charter network for precisely these reasons. According to another article published by Kate Taylor in the New York Times, “the complaint,” which was filed with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, “described how students with disabilities were repeatedly suspended or made to repeat grades and how administrators in several cases urged parents to remove their students from the school” (Taylor 2016). Beyond this, the families alleged that the network “repeatedly violated federal law by not offering students with disabilities alternative instruction when they were suspended,” and failed to investigate “if the behavior leading to [these] suspensions was caused by disabilities and whether additional services were needed” (Taylor 2016). These complaints epitomize the way in which charter school networks employing strict disciplinary policies furtively work to disadvantage students with disabilities. The practices under investigation are not only unethical; they also defy central components of the IDEA, which stipulates that schools must (1) consult with the child’s parent, the LEA, and “relevant members of the IEP (Individual Education Program) Team” to investigate whether or not the objectionable behavior “was a manifestation of the child’s disability,” and (2) provide appropriate services if “a child with a disability has been removed from his or her current placement for ten school days in the same school year” (IDEA Topic: Discipline 2004). According to the case filed against Success Academy, network schools have failed to accommodate students with disabilities on both counts, forcing parents to consider alternative schooling options.
Discipline strategy as it reflects on school culture thus exemplifies one of the key ways in which charter schools fail to accommodate students with disabilities, whether or not they are officially classified as such. In some cases, schools will directly discourage parents from enrolling their children. More often, though, charter schools will simply set students up for failure by employing unforgiving discipline tactics that do not take disability into account (Estes 2000, Taylor 2016: multiple sources). While these actions can be malicious and pecuniary, as discussed earlier, they can also be examples of a misguided system that prioritizes a definition of “fit” that inevitably excludes an already marginalized group of learners. “No excuses” schools may not specifically look to drive away students with disabilities, but this does not negate the fact that these publically funded institutions, through their very philosophy, fail to consider how young children with varying abilities and accommodations might interact with a particular behavioral model. “School culture” is thus manipulated to severely limit the choices of families with children exhibiting behavioral differences.
Motivations for Direct Exclusion
In many cases, schools that practice “out-counseling” do not specifically look to exclude marginalized students, but rather aim to develop homogenous behavioral practices that implicitly preclude children with emotional and cognitive disabilities from successfully integrating into the expressed culture of the institution. However, there are several factors that might encourage schools to actively exclude students with disabilities, including fiscal pressures and the stress of a high-stakes testing environment. The first applies primarily to cases of extreme disability, while the second becomes more pertinent when we consider the idea of neurodiversity that exists outside of official disability diagnoses. In order to understand how charter school enrollment affects school choice on a systemic level, in addition to the personal components discussed earlier, we will focus our attention on the funding argument, which can help us to draw connections between individual stories and larger issues associated with the market-model of choice culture.
Special education programs are incredibly costly (Education Finance Branch 2015). While the reauthorization of the IDEA in 2004 pledged a 40% federal subsidization of special education costs, this goal has yet to be achieved. Special education staffing and programming continues to cost local education agencies substantial funds. As a result, students with disabilities can pose an enormous financial challenge for strapped schools and districts, and many administrators view these students as an economic burden to be avoided at all costs (Zollers and Ramanathan 1998).
Charter schools, particularly those managed by private companies, are disincentivized from enrolling students who present with disabilities (Estes 2000). While these schools are able to successfully serve students with mild disabilities, more complicated diagnoses often come with higher price tags, and some districts and networks claim that they lack both the proper infrastructure and the requisite funding to properly serve these students and their families (Zollers and Ramanathan 1998). For-profit institutions are clearly motivated by fidelity to their financial sponsors, but this does not make their circumspection on the subject of special education an anomaly within the free choice school system. Public (i.e. not-for-profit) charter schools express similar concerns (Prothero 2014). The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools claims that “a factor that influences the amount of dollars available to support special education and related services in charter schools is the practical reality that, on average, charter schools operate with less funding than traditional public schools,” pointing to disparities in localized funding initiatives that disadvantage charter networks (Rhim, O’Neill, et al 2015). Because charter schools work “without a district-like infrastructure, and often with less public money than regular district-run schools,” they struggle to meet the needs of students with severe disabilities, who represent a substantial financial investment (Prothero 2014). Whereas specialized programs designed for students with disabilities are often subsidized in a public school context, the details of funding these same individuals in a charter school—which is subject to less regulation and designed to run independently—requires an independent investment on the part of the school, a distinction that many charter leaders view as untenable (Rhim, O’Neill, et al 2015). As a result, charter schools are often more willing to make exceptions for students with mild disabilities, and are more prone to “out-counseling” those requiring expensive interventions.
It is easy, at first glance, to sympathize with the monetary concerns charter leaders express in reference to special education programming. However, it would be irresponsible to ignore the underlying inequity that accompanies enrollment disparities among charter schools and their traditional public school counterparts. While they may receive support from outside donors and patrons, charter schools are supported by federal funds and federal spaces (Educational Finance Branch 2015). In electing to provide only the most basic special education services, charter schools foist an additional burden on local public schools, which, by law, cannot practice the same kind of “out-counseling” (Yell 1998). When charter schools fail to accommodate students with special needs, they limit the opportunities of students with disabilities and, at the same time, exacerbate fiscal inequities among different public schools incorporated in the choice system.
While charter schools are distinct emblems of the school choice system, the ways in which specific schools and networks interact with students with disabilities undermines the concept of student and parent autonomy. The rise of charter schools has been accompanied by the elevation of “school culture,” which can be used to exclude neurodiverse students and to augment the stigma of disability. As a result, students with special needs are excluded from a definitive component of the modern school choice system. As charter programs continue to expand, these individuals will be left with fewer and fewer options. Examination of the treatment of students with disabilities by particular charter schools and charter networks thus exemplifies the limits of the school choice system, which is not equally accessible for all children in the American public school system. Moving forward, charter schools must expand their enrollment policies to accommodate neurodiverse students, a shift that will require a reevaluation of the definition and importance of “school culture.”
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