Special Education and School Choice: How Families of Special Education Students Navigate School Choice in the Decentralized Public Schools of New Orleans

Introduction

            As Hurricane Katrina made landfall the city of New Orleans in September of 2005, destroying numerous structures and buildings that populated this vibrant Southern city, many of the city’s public schools already existed in a state of disarray.  A combination of inadequate resources, disorganized management, and overwhelming student hardship resulted in chronic low-performance for the students of New Orleans, with especially low performance and low graduation rates for special education students (Vaughan, Mogg, Zimmerman, and O’Neill, 2011; Adamson, Cook-Harvey, and Darling-Hammond, 2015).  In response to the unacceptable condition of education in New Orleans and groups of schools in other Louisiana cities, the Louisiana Department of Education established the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over and turnaround the lowest performing schools.  The central reform strategy brought many independent charter organizations into the RSD in New Orleans to establish new charter schools, while the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) created some charter schools while maintaining others as direct-run schools.  This system requires that all public school students participate in school choice, creating a challenging selection process for families of special education students as they must consider additional factors in navigating the school choice process to ensure the fulfillment of their child’s individual social and educational needs.  By investigating the interactions between school choice and special education in New Orleans’ RSD and OPSB public schools, the challenges presented by the availability of special education-specific information, nuanced recruitment and marketing methods, the application process, and various post-enrollment “push-out” practices become apparent and demonstrate the shortcomings of the public school system in New Orleans in ensuring that special education students receive equitable opportunities in the school choice process.

Background

In the early 2000s, schools in the OPSB ranked among the worst in the United States by metrics of student test performance and graduation rates, failing to adequately provide for a student population facing challenges and instability beyond the classroom (Jones, 2010).  The graduation rate for special education students sank to a mere 5% in 2001 (Schnaiberg and Lake, 2015).  Issues of governance plagued the organizational structures of the district, while mismanaged budgets and payroll in an environment of high turnover pushed the district to a state of financial instability (Jones, 2010).  In 2003, the Louisiana State Legislature created Act 9, which allowed for the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to seize responsibility of a public school deemed failing and establish and govern the RSD, with the BESE able to continue to oversee the operation of traditional schools or create charter schools (Louisiana Legislature, 2003).  Despite resistance at both the state and local level, the act gained enough support to be enacted into law and began implementation in OPSB schools starting in 2004.

In the first years of the RSD, over 63 percent of public schools in New Orleans received the lowest label possible from the state School Performance Score, Academically Unacceptable (AUS), shifting control of these schools to the RSD (Vaughan et al., 2011).  While some of these schools were maintained as traditional schools managed by the district, outside charter companies like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Institute for Academic Excellence entered the RSD to start directing individual schools.  Yet, the city’s public schools largely still battled with mismanagement of OPSB, with many students remaining in low-performing or failing schools (Vaughan et al., 2011).  In the years following the hurricane, New Orleans battled to rebuild and reopen its public schools, facing challenges of inadequate supplies and facilities, a shortage of teachers and staff, and highly variable student populations (Vaughan et al. 2011).  As stated by Leslie Jacobs, a founder of the RSD, the city’s public schools continued to fail its special education students after the storm as they were “not equipped” to so do (Dreilinger, 2015).  However, the RSD slowly recovered while reducing the number of traditional schools run directly by the school district and increasing the number of charter schools controlled by outside management organizations.  By the 2014-2015 school year, the RSD consisted entirely of independently managed charter schools, while the OPSB consisted of 6 direct-run traditional schools and 14 charter schools (Adamson et al., 2015).  As reported in 2014, the public schools now an 87% Black student population—in a city home to a 60.2% percent Black or African American population—suggesting private school attendance for many White families (Louisiana DOE, 2015).  A reported 84% of students in the city’s public schools can be classified as economically disadvantaged, or qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Medicaid (Louisiana DOE, 2015).

Forty-four different organizations, including several national charter networks, manage New Orleans’ public schools.  The role of the RSD in managing its charter schools consists largely of directing the open enrollment process, while allowing each school to operate with a high degree of autonomy; in contrast, the OPSB still operates traditional schools with local governance structures while also managing its selective, priority, and open enrollment charter schools (Adamson et al., 2015). These schools have frequently been accused of under-enrolling special education students throughout the transition to an all-choice district—a controversy not exclusive to New Orleans’ school choice system (Vaughan et al., 2011).  Furthermore, the standards-driven reform that serves a foundational role at these schools has been shown to inadequately account for the needs of special education students (Hourigan, 2014; Voltz and Fore, 2006). A lawsuit brought forth in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center against state superintendent Paul Pastorek, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the BESE alleged that these groups had failed to protect the rights of special education students in New Orleans Public Schools.  Particular discriminatory practices raised in the lawsuit include selective admissions practices, skewed distribution of adequate resources, and improper maintenance and implementation of individualized education plans (IEPs) (PB v Pastorek, 2010).

new orleans public schools
Map of New Orleans Public schools as of 2016 (New Orleans Parents Guide, 2016).  Click on the image for an enlarged version.

 

The evolution that transformed New Orleans’ public schools into an entirely choice-based structure demands that many charter schools and other schools of choice that may have previously engaged in exclusionary practices toward special education students (Wolf, 2011) must now serve students across the spectrum of academic and developmental abilities while still facing the pressures of demonstrating progress in a struggling school system.  How, then, does this affect the ways in which RSD and OPSB schools market their special education services to families and enroll special education students?  When school choice becomes the only choice for families of special education students, how does this impact the way they navigate the school choice landscape?  In investigating the information available to parents, enrollment patterns, and cases of attrition of special education students, the current shortcomings of New Orleans’ public schools in providing an equitable school choice experience to special education students and their families emerge.

Literature Review

School choice as public education reform involves allowing families and students in the public school system to gain control of where and how their students are educated, creating a marketplace that pushes schools to focus on higher achievement where successful schools flourish and struggling schools are forced to improve or close their doors (Goldhaber, 1997). Charter schools have played a key role in school choice, originally working with the vision of shifting school leadership to give teachers the ability to develop innovative strategies while working to break the segregation created by divided housing and neighborhood public schools; it has since become a tactic for improving schooling options, often in urban settings, by creating a free-market-type model for education as independent companies operate new schools with diverse educational philosophies (Kahlenberg and Potter, 2014).

Effectiveness of school choice reform in improving student outcomes, mobility, and equity continues to be debated, particularly in what some have termed New Orleans’ school choice “experiment”; the ability of parents to access information and seek out higher-performing schools varies and can leave high-risk students at a disadvantage (Welsh, Duque, and McEachin, 2016; Parvis, 2015).  The school marketplace in New Orleans, with RSD schools independently operated and OPSB schools with both open and selective enrollment, results in a wide range of school quality (Arce-Trigatti, Harris, Jabbar, and Lincove 2015).  Zimmerman and Vaughan investigated the enrollment patterns of low socioeconomic status students and concluded that, despite the efforts of school choice to break-up the demographic divides perpetuated by neighborhood schools, these students benefited less than high socioeconomic students (2013).  Similarly, special education students have been shown to be at risk for being disadvantaged in the school choice process, as schools with varying resources and budgets can struggle to meet the high per-pupil expenditures of special education students and create decidedly unequal education environments (Berry Cullen and Rivkin, 2003).  Furthermore, unfamiliarity with what constitutes educational discrimination among the independently run charter organizations, many of which employ non-educators in executive roles, and the perceived incompatibility of meeting special education accommodations with charter school’s increased independence create further complications (Berry Cullen and Rivkin, 2003).  This research seeks to understand how, given these additional constraints in the school choice process, families of special education students in New Orleans navigate the process; by comparing this to how schools approach marketing to special education students and their enrollment patterns, trends regarding the equity of opportunities should emerge.

Methods

Data collection for this investigation combines a number of sources about the state of education and special education in New Orleans and builds on the research of education scholars who have studied school choice systems in New Orleans and beyond.  Investigation into the current choice and application process for OPSB and RSD schools yields the necessary information about how the families of special education students exercise school choice, with information obtained from the organizations’ websites as a parent or family would have access.  Furthermore, several district and school websites were investigated to find available information about their special education programs with the goal of understanding the information or lack thereof that families have available to make their school choice decisions.  Literature regarding the experiences of special education students and their families, including anecdotal evidence gathered from studies performed by education researchers, after enrollment in a New Orleans public school furnishes a foundation for understanding the implementation of a nearly all-charter system in New Orleans.

Findings: Information Available to Parents and Families

Families of students in New Orleans have access to both information distributed through physical printouts and online resources and verbal communication through interactions with school officials and other families to use in evaluating school choice options.  For example, the New Orleans Parents’ Guide, published by a community non-profit, outlines a profile of each of the public schools while citywide school expos and family resource centers provide a more personal and interactive resource for parents (Gross, DeArmond, and Denice, 2015).  The parents of New Orleans public school students interviewed by Gross et al.—parents who, resulting from selection bias, are suspected to remain more actively engaged in the school choice process—expressed that they used the resources and valued the information they provided.  However, parents also expressed that they desired more detailed information regarding the culture of the schools, as different charter organizations have the autonomy to create different academic and disciplinary cultures (2015).  For parents of special education students, an understanding of school philosophy becomes of greater importance in assessing the appropriate school environment (Byrne, 2011), necessitating access to this type of information.

Individual school websites host the online resources provided to families regarding special education services for their students available without direct engagement with school officials.  Of 20 randomly selected RSD schools, including one network-wide website for New Orleans KIPP schools, whose websites  were searched for information regarding special education, 12 did not include any explicit explanation of special education policies in their schools on web pages or in any school handbook attachments, including one school that did not have a website.  Of the school websites that did make mention of special education, the most extensive explanations of special education policies were for schools part of a larger charter network, including New Orleans College Prep Charter Schools and Crescent City Schools.  These schools provided explicit explanations of disciplinary procedures and implementation of IEPs.  In contrast, the KIPP New Orleans website did not provide accessible information regarding special education.  Of the five OPSB directly run traditional schools with websites, information about the school’s policies and practices for special education did not appear in any of the tabs or links available.  Links to student-parent handbooks appeared, but did not function properly to make the documents available to the viewer.  Of the 12 OPSB charter school websites investigated, six did not include accessible information about special education policies.  The six schools that did include information about special education included a mention of or link to the general OPSB outline of IEP policies and legal compliance, but did not explicitly outline the interaction of these policies with the individual schools (For a list of the schools whose websites were searched, see here.)  Furthermore, as shown in the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools accessed from the organization’s website, each school profile includes only a brief line about the special education services available and the behavior approach of the school.  Many of the profiles simply state “inclusion model,” referring to the method of keeping special education students in the same classrooms as students without special education needs, often with the assistance of a co-teacher or aid that ensures that student needs are addressed (Tremblay, 2013). However, the guide does not provide any further information to the implementation of this model in individual schools.  Such information may not provide families an adequate explanation of what their child will be experiencing in the classroom; for families with access to additional resources, like those provided at school expos, online information serves as a starting-off point for them to further investigate whether or not a school has the appropriate resources and educational environment.

Compared to the information available through these online resources regarding school mission statements, academic guidelines, extracurricular options, and logistical information, the information provided about special education remains scarce.  With these websites serving as a central resource for families to use to make their school choice decisions, there remains a lack of clarity regarding the opportunities and programs for special education students and the role that special education services play in the overall school community.  In interviewing parents who had experience with enrolling a special education student in a charter school and faced exclusionary practices in the early years of the RSD, Marcell found that parents perceive certain charter schools with an emphasis on college preparation or STEM as not “disability friendly” and do not attempt to enroll their students (2010).  Regardless of the intentionality of omitting information about special education while emphasizing other factors, families may interpret this to believe that certain school options will not be available to their child with special education needs and that they are limited in the availability of suitable school choice options.

Switching perspective to that of the administrators and schools responsible for publishing information and advertising to families, a study that engaged the administrators of New Orleans public schools with particularly high and low rates of special education student enrollment demonstrated that the majority of administrators had taken no direct action to recruit special education students to their schools (Marcell, 2010).  This lack of active advertising of special education services would suggest that families navigating school choice must take greater responsibility in acquiring information about special education resources to ensure that they can enroll their student in a school that will adequately meet their needs.  Some New Orleans schools, however, actively engaged in exclusionary recruiting and enrollment practices.  Prior to the creation of a centralized application for admission to public schools in New Orleans in 2012, charters could hold individual lotteries to facilitate their open enrollment processes.  Resulting from the pressure to sustain high test scores and performance, Jabbar found that schools actively engaged in various targeted marketing and screening procedures to limit student populations and only recruit students that will boost school performance (2015).  In her analysis of the response of school leaders to market-based competition in New Orleans schools, Jabbar reported that ten of thirty schools researched engaged in some form of selection process for open-enrollment schools.  Additionally, schools reportedly controlled their recruitment processes for “certain types of students” and would remain under-enrolled as opposed to allowing lower-performing students to enter the school to ensure high achievement ratings and test scores (2015).  Given that standards-based reform can often yield low test-score related outcomes for special education students (Voltz and Fore, 2006), schools that continue these practices will not feel compelled to seek out special education students.  Furthermore, in a report of how families make school choices in New Orleans, findings included a higher special needs population as a “factor that decreases the likelihood of choosing a school” for families looking at public schooling options; in the case of schools with high achievement statistics, however, parents would still demonstrate preference despite a higher special needs population (Lincove, Cowen, and Imbrongo, 2016).   School seeking to attract a particular student population may then find direct marketing to special education students a disadvantageous strategy.

The Application Process and Patterns of Enrollment


OneApp Process as explained on the EnrollNOLA website (EnrollNOLA, 2016).

Students and families entering or switching public schools in New Orleans now complete the OneApp, a centralized application started for the 2012-2013 school year that allows families to indicate their school preferences and enter the lottery process for each of those schools.  Initially implemented for the RSD alone, it now serves school in New Orleans under the governance of the RSD, OPSB, and BESE with some additional pre-kindergarten programs and includes the specific enrollment processes of each school type.  Currently, the RSD operates on an open enrollment system, with sibling and neighborhood preferences available to families; student academic records and achievement do not play a role in placing students in these schools (EnrollNOLA, 2016).  OPSB schools consist of both open enrollment schools with sibiling and neighborhood preferences and those that select students based on factors of academic performance and merit.  A group of OPSB schools use a separate application process known as the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools (GNOCCS), separating their student placement process.  For students with special education needs, the RSD considers the necessary accommodations for a student and allows them to partake in the preference process and be matched to any participating school.  However, OPSB schools may place students with special education needs in a school beyond those selected on the application, giving some weight to family choice while ensuring that they can provide services compliant with the rights of the student (New Orleans Parents Guide, 2016).   Once families have made their top choices through OneApp, a lottery formula determines their placement for open enrollment schools; ordering of the lottery numbers changes if a student’s application includes any of the particular preference factors.  Schools with performance-based admissions do not engage in the same lottery-based process for filling available seats (EnrollNOLA, 2016).

Of the four OPSB schools reported to utilize student performance based application data, each received the highest school quality rating of A in the 2014-2015 school year; additionally, the percentage of special education students in these four schools averaged 4.7%, lower than the 7.0% average for OPSB schools (OPSB, 2016).  Looking at the school district more broadly, a study that classified all New Orleans public schools as Tier 1 through 3 in descending order of academic quality found that, for the 2013-2014 school year, Tier 1 schools enrolled half and one fourth as many special education students as Tier 2 and Tier 3 schools, respectively (Adamson et al., 2015).  Jabbar found that, after the implementation of OneApp, some administrators of open enrollment schools continued to limit their student population by overenrolling to avoid assignment of out-of-school or disciplined students midyear or strategically not marketing to allow for hand selection of students after the OneApp deadline (2016).  Despite the implementation of a unified application process for many of the RSD and OPSB schools to create a more equitable placement process—preventing practices like interviews and use of personal connections to gain enrollment for students (Jabbar, 2016)—enrollment of special education students remains skewed across schools.

Pushing Students Out with Post-Enrollment Selection Methods

Even after parents and families have made school choice decisions, gained a spot through OneApp, and enrolled their student at a particular school, some families experience “push-out” of their special education students.  As described by Adamson et al., some public schools in New Orleans have been reported to utilize various “post-admissions selection mechanisms” (2015); these tactics include repeated punishments and suspensions, claiming to be incapable of providing adequate services within the scope of the school’s educational model, and threatening families with the prospect of expulsion (2015).  Administrators that employ these strategies manipulate the enrollment to ensure that the school receives the funding that follows that special education student before pushing that student out of the school (Adamson et al. 2015).  This reflects the perception of students as “money”—considering the amount of funding given for enrolling certain students compared to the actual amount of resources that need to be allocated toward their education—described by Jabbar, with offending schools unwilling to bear the responsibility of serving some of the city’s most vulnerable student population (2015).

In discussing her experience with RSD charter schools, a mother of three New Orleans students, including an elementary school son diagnosed with ADHD and emotional troubles, explained how her son’s teachers “wanted for [her] to remove [her] children” and repeatedly pushed back on the outlined terms of his IEP.  However, in response to her repeated complaints, the school took steps to improve their resources for special education students, including additional staff members to support the necessary programs (Westervelt, 2014).  Such occurrences suggest that schools can make the necessary changes for students who need help to succeed academically and developmentally in that school environment; these changes, however, can be limited to a case-by-case basis without a centralized organization to accommodate students with special education needs in each school.  While a statewide organization known as the Louisiana Special Education Cooperative functions to offer support to the special education population of school districts, only nine of New Orleans’ charter schools participated as of 2014 (Westervelt, 2014).  For parents, this lack of unity in the system that makes for varied conditions in different schools throughout RSD and OPSB further complicates the school choice process, especially when their child’s enrollment at a school proves to be unfitting for both the school and the child.

Conclusion

School choice in New Orleans’ public schools—with the majority operating as charter schools— presents families with the large task of wading through various sources of data to choose potential schools that suit their children’s needs.  For special education students and their families, additional challenges exist as these separately run schools may hesitate or be ill-equipped to serve these students as they face the pressure of producing high test scores and academic success in a historically low-performing city with a high-needs student population (Vaughan et. al, 2011).  While families have access to information online about each of the RSD and OPSB schools, depth and quality of content varies.  Special education-specific information remains sparse, either leaving families without the necessary information to select a fitting school for their student or requiring them to seek additional resources.  The need to obtain additional information through resources like school expos and open house events, while not exclusive to families of special education students, contains the additional complications of ensuring that a particular school’s educational philosophy and allocated resources accommodate an IEP.

Despite the measures taken to create a more transparent admissions process through the implementation of OneApp, schools can still tailor admissions by controlling how they advertise their available services and portray the objectives of their school, as demonstrated by Jabbar (2015, 2016).  If a school markets itself to high-achieving students as a rigorous college-prep curriculum, families and parents of special education students may be dissuaded from pursuing enrollment at that school (Marcell, 2010).  Charter schools that seek to create a uniform and cohesive school culture may not believe they can benefit from recruiting students that require additional accommodations that may not align with that particular school’s educational philosophy.  Even if a student with special education needs has gained a seat in a desired school, push-out mechanisms can threaten their long-term enrollment (Jabbar 2015).  The amalgamation of these factors results in an inequitable school choice process for special education students and their families.

Moving forward, both the RSD and OBSP in New Orleans should work toward providing more comprehensive resources for families to understand what schools will work best with their student’s IEP and additional needs to ensure the ability of special education students to equitably benefit from school choice.  This could be facilitated by the creation of a central office for special education students that not only aids in the selection process, but ensures that the independently run schools operate in accordance with legal framework.  Similarly, an organization of this nature could facilitate better resource sharing across schools to better serve all special education students and enable school administrators to more comfortably market to special education students and their families without concern that they cannot logistically support these students.  However, a balance must be struck between continuing to allow these independent schools to implement innovative practices for effecting overall school reform and taking steps toward creating continuity through both the RSD and OPSB.

While the research presented here investigated the school choice process, great consideration must also be given to the quality of the special education services that New Orleans’ public schools provide and how these conditions may perpetuate further inequities.  These two issues cannot be isolated from one another; if schools provide families with more information about special education services and create a more equitable school choice process, but the quality of the schools that special education students attend and the services they receive are lacking, special education students will still be shortchanged by their schools.  Furthermore, inequities that exist for other groups in New Orleans’ public schools (Welsh et al., 2016; Parvis, 2015) cannot be overlooked in improving the school choice process.

In reforming its public schools, New Orleans seeks to provide equitable educational opportunities for a student population that has historically been inadequately served.  Enabling families and students to make decisions about their schooling and creating a market-based system to promote increased school quality cannot achieve this equity if special education students remain disadvantaged in school choice.  As change to New Orleans’ public schools remains an ongoing, dynamic process, greater consideration of the needs of special education students now can lead to positive future change and sustainable success in school choice.

Limitations    

A major limitation of this work stems from the lack of field work conducted to obtain qualitative data collected for the express purpose of this research question.  Without the opportunity to engage with individuals in New Orleans and its public schools, I must rely on the work of others to establish an understanding of the city’s school choice process.  A more comprehensive understanding of how families experience the selection and application process in New Orleans’ schools of choice would be made possible by an extensive study that follows families through the process and engages them at each phase.  Additionally, the information utilized here comes from a variety of sources that have been produced over the past few years. However, since the reform process in New Orleans is an active and ongoing process, changes that occur most recently may not be reflected in the literature.  Media attention regarding special education in New Orleans may be prompting current or near future projects for improvement that have yet to be studied.  Furthermore, as each family and student experiences school choice in a different way, the findings here can only reflect the larger themes that emerge as opposed to the unique experiences of the individual.  Families with neutral or positive experiences navigating school choice in New Orleans with special education in mind may not be as compelled to report these circumstances in the same manner that families with negative experiences may, thus excluding these schools and their students from the data collection.  With school choice becoming a tactic of school reform that has gained both ardent supporters and staunch opponents, biases can emerge in the qualitative data and the way it is presented.  Following the evolution of New Orleans’ public schools into the coming years may reveal positive changes that have been developed after consideration of early outcomes.

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