Compliance with IDEA is not an option for Public Charter Schools

  By Chioma Oruh, Ph.D.

As a parent advocate for children with disabilities, I’ve learned to judge schools by how they treat their most vulnerable students. And fortunately, the North Carolina-based RTI International, a social science research nonprofit organization that partners with US News and World Report to develop metrics for high-performing schools, agree with me. In developing comprehensive rankings methodology, they determine great high schools as those that serve all its students well, not just those that are college bound, and are able to produce measurable academic outcomes to show successful education across a range of performance indicators, including accounting for how schools integrate marginalized students generally along racial and economic lines. While there are limitations to the annual US News and World Report ranking system as it pertains to how schools measure performance in disabilities services across the spectrum of public and public charter education from early education to high schools, case law and federal policies offer critical protections that empower students and their families as well as advocates.

In reading a recent article highlighting the expansion of KIPP’s Pathways Program that actively seeks to enroll students with disabilities, the lack of acknowledgment of these protective policies and laws in the article limits the scope in which parents and students can understand how to advocate for free appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment.

First, it is noteworthy the gross oversight in the article of a necessity of legal compliance that governs every transition from preschool to high school and beyond for students with disabilities is not unique. Many schools, and more notoriously public charter schools, tend to encounter parents who generally aren’t aware of the full extent of legal protections when it comes to the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and supportive local laws and Supreme Court rulings; thus tend to present regulated compliance measures as options and/or favors.  This oversight has cost many local education agencies (LEA) needless amounts of time in court and, in some cases, risk losing their charter.

For example, Robert Russa Moton Charter School recently received a four-year, rather than the typical six-year, renewal from the Orleans Parish School Board in Louisiana contingent upon taking corrective steps based on an intensive corrective action plan to fix chronic failure to identify and serve students with disabilities.  In many other cases, schools have been cited for a range of violations including failure to adhere to the Child Find mandate that require schools to identify and evaluate all children who may have disabilities or complaints regarding due process rights that offer formal ways families can dispute and resolve educational malpractice claims that can be done with or without an attorney or advocate.  Additionally, in a recent Supreme Court ruling in the Endrew F. v Douglas County School District, a unanimous decision now requires schools to do more than they provide a “merely more than de minimis” education for students with disabilities.

In his opinion statement Chief Justice John G. Roberts of the March 22, 2017, ruling in the Endrews F case, a notably conservative member of the Supreme Court, states that the individualized education plan (IEP) is the “centerpiece of the statute’s education delivery system for disabled children…Honing v. Doe (1988)..[and] is a comprehensive plan prepared by a child’s ‘IEP Team’ (which includes teachers, school officials, and the child’s parents), an IEP must be drafted in compliance with a detailed set of procedures…These procedures emphasize collaboration among parents and educators and require careful consideration of the child’s individual circumstances…The IEP is the means by which special education and related services are ‘tailored to the unique needs’ of a particular child.” The article on KIPP schools in New Jersey introduces the IEP and the due process rights of monthly progress assessments as novel idea and not the actual legal shield that protects this long-fought mandate.

It is important to acknowledge KIPP for their Pathway Program as a commendable initiative but it is of equal importance to acknowledge that it before-mentioned laws and policies governing special education and related services in public and public charter schools.  And KIPP is not alone. There are many charter schools such as The Mary Lyons School, Boston Arts Academy pilot schools, Democracy Prep Charter in Harlem and Chime Charter in Los Angeles, that were started by disabilities rights activists seeking a more inclusive and effective option for children with disabilities. And for the charter schools that aren’t equipped to manage students with disabilities and opt to violate due process rights, then articles and blogs that speak of the special education achievements, be they self-contained or in inclusion classrooms, must do so with respect to the law and not assist in the miseducation that jeopardize charters and frustrate families.

Beyond framing the legal compliance aspect of special education, it is also important to acknowledge the IDEA, Section 504, the ADA, ect. that come about as a result of the hard work of courageous parents, advocates and self-advocates that made all of these possible. Imagine acknowledging that slavery ended without given homage the freedom fighters and abolitionists that made many sacrifices, including giving up their lives. Or what would it look like to talk of an equal pay or paid family leave movement without recognizing the efforts of early abolitionists and union organizers? And, it would be a slap in the face of the sacrifice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other brave activists during the civil rights era to disregard many benefits of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The sacrifices made coupled with victories and longstanding legislation is also a part of the disabilities justice movement; and so should the accomplishments of this movement not be taken for granted.

And just as all of successful social movements, remembrance and giving credit where credit is due is an act of public education that allows the next generation to play it forward.