Guest column: New Orleans has opportunity to lead the way for students with disabilities

By: Lauren Morando Rhim and Stephanie Lancet

New Orleans is in the midst of a historic transition, with the Orleans Parish School Board regaining local control of its public schools from the Louisiana Recovery School District. This unprecedented transition brings with it much opportunity to ensure every child’s individual needs are met, including students with disabilities.

Following the 2016 passage of Act 91, city officials proactively prepared for this transition, adopting new policies and practices related to special education. For example, due to a recently adopted differentiated funding formula, schools now receive per-student funding according to the time, resources, and type of instruction required to meet individual students’ needs. This move serves as both a stick and carrot, disincentivizing schools who continually enroll students with disabilities at rates much lower than the citywide average, and better supporting those who enroll natural or greater proportions.

Another notable change is the development of EnrollNOLA, an online unified enrollment system that assigns students to schools based on family preferences and school priorities. This need-blind system guarantees that no school uses the admissions process to discriminate against students with diverse learning needs, with students’ individualized education program status made available only after enrollment. There are opportunities for OPSB to improve EnrollNOLA — such as equipping parents with information on schools’ programs related to educating students with disabilities — but the system, like the differentiated funding formula, demonstrates OPSB’s dedication to equitable processes in a city where, historically, some schools have demonstrated less of a commitment to educating students with disabilities...

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Discipline policies that illegally punish and exclude students with disabilities must stop

By: Paul O’Neill and Stephanie Lancet

Last week, a federal judge in Brooklyn issued an order that advanced a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed in 2015 against Success Academy, a high-achieving charter school network in New York, by former students and their parents (the plaintiffs). In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the Principal of Success Academy’s Fort Greene campus placed 16 students — some as young as 4 years old — on a "Got to Go" list because of disruptive behavior.

The suit focuses on 5 of those students, all of whom either have or were perceived to have disabilities. The plaintiffs argue that the principal "deliberately targeted their children for removal" from the school because of their "actual or perceived disabilities." They allege that their children were subjected to a variety of discriminatory discipline practices and attempts to push them out of the school.

Disconcerting and problematic, this case is, on one level, a microcosm for the public education sector at large: A recent report by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools found that students with disabilities continue to be disciplined roughly twice as often as their peers without disabilities. Another study by the Center for American Progress found that children ages 3 to 5 with disabilities and/or emotional and social challenges comprise 12% of early childhood program populations — and 75% of suspensions and expulsions.

These statistics, and more like them from the US Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, serve as a peephole into one of the most heated current issues in education: disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities.

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The More We Get Together…

By: Paul O’Neill

When the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools launched 5 years ago, there were not many opportunities for people in the charter sector to sit down together and brainstorm about how best to serve kids with disabilities; how to innovate; how to work collaboratively to support teachers and educators and families. We certainly have a long way to go before those sorts of considerations are part of every education reform conversation, but it is gratifying to see the progress that has been made.  Within networks and among them, at the authorizer level and at state charter organizations, special educators and educational leaders of all sorts are talking to each other, sharing best practices and ideas about ensuring equity. NCSECS has committed to fostering this collaboration by creating an Equity Coalition comprised of leaders from both special education organizations and charter school groups; and a CMO Network consisting of charter management organization representatives who focus on special education.

In an effort to further broaden this conversation and the stakeholders involved in it, NSCSECS recently teamed up with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools to convene a special meeting at the National Charter Schools Conference of leaders from across the charter sector and across the country. School Principals, funders, network heads, authorizers, non-profit leaders, researchers, attorneys – the breadth of participants extended to nearly every corner of the sector. They focused on what is hard, what is promising, and what is possible for serving students with disabilities in charter schools, airing challenges such as How do we encourage schools to be more innovative when accountability structures focus solely on traditional performance metrics? and How can schools serve more students with high needs without funding to support that work? Many perspectives and ideas were shared. We took notes, and will find opportunities to build on this exchange. That will include more convenings; more minds collaborating on thorny, hugely important challenges that must be aired and addressed together in order to be solved.


Mississippi Charter School Needs to Release Emails to Public

The charter sector in Mississippi is in its infancy. Although the state has technically had a charter school law on the books for more than 20 years, only five applications have been approved with three schools currently operating.

As a new public education sector in the state, the growing cohorts of charter schools have the opportunity to learn from other states and get it right from the beginning. A 2016 case involving allegations of harsh discipline of a student with a learning disability and the school’s subsequent rebuffing of an open records request is one of many potential forks in the road in which the sector can elect to embrace its publicness and take steps to build a solid foundation or select a path that will fuel those opposed to the core tenets of charter schools (i.e., autonomy, accountability, and choice).

The case stems from allegations that a teacher at a charter school grabbed a student with a disability and dragged him down the hall and then slung him against a wall. The mother subsequently filed a lawsuit against the school alleging that the school failed to keep her son, who has a learning disability, safe. While the mother’s lawsuit is pending, the Clarion Ledger, citing the Mississippi Public Records Act, requested emails sent by the principal for the month following the incident and emails from the charter school network’s servers pertaining to the employee involved. The charter school refused to share the emails on the grounds that the school is exempted from the state’s Public Records Act and that only documents produced by its governing board are subject to disclosure. This directly contradicts prior decisions by the state Ethics Commission that emails written by teachers related to school business are public records.

While it is unclear whether the respective documents might actually be protected under the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the argument that charter schools are exempt from Public Records Act is disconcerting on multiple fronts....

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Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools

“What is getting lost in the tragedy of children being separated from their parents is the serious health impact on kids, both in the short-term and long-term. This is particularly concerning for students with disabilities, as research indicates that early trauma can impact children's learning, behavior and relationships. While there appears to be movement towards changing the current policy that separates families, we have to keep the pressure on to ensure that the top priority moving forward is to protect the well-being of all children. Families have been hurt and in addition to ensuring that this type of situation never happens again, we have to make sure that families are reunited immediately and children get the support they need to recover from the trauma they've experienced due to the ill-advised actions of the U.S. government."