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Will Push For School Choice Leave Students With Disabilities Behind?

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In laying out its plan for American education, the Trump Administration has put particular emphasis on school choice, signaling ambitions to expand publicly-funded voucher programs that give parents the ability to send their children to charter, magnet and private schools.

School Choice Debate Divides Parents, Researchers

Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos say expanding school choice will promise major benefits for students with special needs and their families. Some parents, along with public education researchers, aren’t convinced. Charter and private schools don’t play by the same rules that confine public schools. That, of course, is part of the point: charters are allowed to experiment, hoping to find new ways to improve student outcomes.

Elementary School Classroom

Critics of school choice, however, argue that the independence enjoyed by charter and private schools allows them to flout ethical principles that bind public institutions. Students with special needs, they continue, will get the short-end of the stick. Because students with disabilities are typically more expensive to educate than their peers, advocates fear that charter schools will simply turn these children away, leaving their families scrambling to find another option.

Students With Special Needs Under-Represented In Charter Schools

Students with special needs make up a smaller proportion of the student body in charter schools than they do in public schools. In 2014, researchers found that students with disabilities made up around 12.5% of the student body in traditional public schools, while only 10.6% in charter schools, according to US News & World Report. An investigation in Florida, reported by StateImpact, revealed that 86% of the State’s charter schools don’t have a single student with a severe disability. Around half of the State’s public schools do.

Why these disparities exist is something of an open question. The Center on Reinventing Public Education argues that parents of children with special needs are simply less likely to choose charter schools, often due to gaps in their knowledge about eligibility. Moreover, charter schools may be less likely to identify students as having special needs, choosing instead to treat every student as if they had an Individualized Education Plan.

Other researchers have disputed these claims.

How Charter Admissions Could Disadvantage Students With Special Needs

To a certain extent, charter schools recruit their students. While supporters of school choice, like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, insist that charters “accept any student who wants to attend,” the reality of charter admissions is different, writes Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss.

The idea that charter schools accept students through random lottery drawings is misleading, Strauss says, because entering the lottery in the first place begins with a rigorous application process. Some charters require the submission of research papers and exam results. Most take academic performance into account. More crucially, there are even charter schools that require families to document any and all disabilities or special needs, a demand the Education Department regards as illegal at colleges and universities.

Researchers Split On Real-World Effects Of School Choice

All this is an attempt to “cherry-pick” students, says Kevin Welner, an education professor at the University of Colorado. In accepting only those students the school considers “desirable,” charters hope to pad their test scores and secure higher levels of state and federal funding.

Expulsion rates also tend to be higher at charter schools, although there’s some evidence that, instead of hurting kids with special needs, students with disabilities are actually more likely to remain enrolled than their peers. Charters also appear to be more likely, up to 3 times more likely, to move children with disabilities into general educational classrooms, while delivering better test scores than public schools.

No one would argue that families should have the right to find a school that offers a good fit for their child. Selecting from a robust menu of educational options should be a “fundamental question of civil rights,” according to Karen Hoerst, whose five-year-old son Nico was born with a rare congenital condition. Nico cannot speak and has learning disabilities. Neither charter schools nor public schools in Washington, D.C., where the Hoerst family lives, have yet been able to provide Nico with the inclusive environment his family is looking for.

Does Homeschooling Promise A Viable Alternative?

Homeschooling is another option. Instead of sending their children to public or private schools, some families in Florida have taken advantage of the State’s Gardiner Scholarship program, which provides vouchers (around $10,000 per child each year) so parents can purchase the supplies and equipment needed to educate their own children. Within the wider school choice movement, homeschoolers have received relatively little support.

Alongside Florida, only a few states, including New Hampshire, have voucher programs similar to the Gardiner Scholarship. Advocates for school choice often criticize the approach, fearing that increased federal funding for homeschoolers will simply ramp up government control of families’ educational choices.

President Trump, however, has thrown his weight behind the idea, pushing to “redirect education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice.”

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