The True Face of Charters

Scam artists have been with us since the beginning of time.  Probably the first one mentioned in literature was that pesky serpent in the Garden of Eden.  The scam artist can always size up an easy mark.  Usually, it is someone a little bit naive, looking for an easy solution to a difficult situation.  I was not expecting to find a bunch of sly and slick hustlers this summer when I worked on an IEP team for a Committee on Special Education in a large urban school district.  These hustlers often came in the guise of educational directors for some very well-known charters that have found fertile ground in one of America’s most diverse cities. 

For over three decades I have dealt with parents of disabled children at IEP meetings that often determine the classification and educational program of such students.  Often, these parents are traumatized by such meetings.  At such conferences, parents have to deal with the fact that their once normal child is replaced by a child who now has a “handicap.”  I have seen sophisticated parents freeze up at such meetings and lose the ability to ask rational questions or make appropriate decisions.  But when parents are not sophisticated, they become easy prey to being hoodwinked by the system  or by someone who often puts themselves up as an “expert” who has “the child’s best interest in mind.” 

The scenario often goes like this.  Little Johnny begins a neighborhood public school in a high needs community.  If the child did have any preschool, it was often an unstructured or informal day care situation so the parent can work to make ends meet.  But often, the entrance of the child into a neighborhood school is the student’s first educational experience.  Immediately, the child begins to have difficulty.  The school attempts to help the child through some interventions but finally a decision is made to refer the student to see if he or she is eligible for special educational services.  Usually, the parent is resource poor and has little knowledge about where to find the necessary help for the child.  On most occasions, I have found such parents first concerned and then desperate for help because their situation prevents them from having the ability, resources or the means to help the child themselves.  I remember one such family this past summer.  It consisted of a mom, dad and a young child of color who after a year of kindergarten could not recognize the letters of the alphabet and most sounds.   The father was working two jobs and the mother had a third job so they could have a roof over their heads.

Someone gave them a flyer about a charter school in the area and they talked to the educational director.  When they met this director, they brought along the child.  The director told them, obviously without formally assessing the student, that the problem was probably not with the child but with public school.  They were told that the charter had young,dedicated teachers who were “always” successful in getting “every one of their students to read.  They even told the parent that they even had special educational services.  They had a fabulous resource room teacher that has gotten every child he has worked with to read.   They applied and luck was with them.  The child was chosen to go to the school. 

The parents must have had high hopes that the child would finally succeed, but it became clear that by the time the school year was coming to an end that the child was not succeeding in first grade.  To be fair, the charter gave the child at risk resource room services and at risk speech services.  But when Spring came, the educational director told the parent they were referring the child to the Committee on Special Education for some formal services.  She told the parent that she always comes to these meetings to make sure the Academy’s children get what they need. 

When I reviewed the case with the team’s psychologist, general education teacher and parent member, it was obvious that this boy probably had significant problems for a long time.  The psychoeducational assessment showed that he had a borderline IQ, significant language delays and was working academically still on a preschool level.  Obviously, the child needed a small class.  When the parents, child, and educational director came into the meeting, the first meeting I ever had with a charter school, I was expecting the parents and educational director to disagree.  However, when the meeting began, the director begin to speak.  She said that they realized right away that the child had very special needs and that they did their best.  She went on to say that it was obvious that “The Academy” could no longer meet the needs of this child.  Immediately, I was able to read the body language of the parents.  They were not expecting that the charter would abandon their child.  They were in tears.  I naively asked if the charter had a collaborative program or a self-contained class.  I should have realized the obvious answer. 

As the summer progressed, I soon realized that with charters, it was the same play, but with different actors.  Here would come a young educational director to the meeting with the parents.  The child often needed more special educational services than the school provided.  The director was always there to help the parent make the “right” decision.  Obviously, the “right decision” cut the child loose from the school “in a nice way.”  The charter did not have to expel the student who did not fit in.  The parent, voluntarily, with a little coaxing from the educational director, chose to put the student in a special educational program that the school did not provide.  Thus, the pupil had to return to the public school. 

This is the true face of the charter movement.  They scam the parent into believing that their school can work miracles without really knowing the child.  When it does not work out, they cut the child loose.  Of course, it looks, on paper, like the parent made the decision, but in reality, it was a well-calculated manipulation.  Interesting, years ago, some high achieving public schools in this urban area, used to do the same thing.  These high achieving public schools, ten, twenty years ago, had few special educational services, and thus if a student needed more, the pupil was sent elsewhere and the building’s high reading scores were saved.  But eventually, being public schools, they were forced to create more services and these children would eventually remain to be served.

It is easy for a charter to say that all their kids perform well when they can easily skim off those children who cannot succeed in reaching grade level performance without a lot of help and intervention.  It is easy to say all your kids are college bound when you get rid of those who can never reach such a goal through no fault of their own.  To me, if you are a public school or if you accept public money as they do, then you must obey the law and serve all disabled children as traditional public schools have to do.  In the years I was a classroom special education teacher, I could not choose the kids I wanted.  I knew it was my job to serve all kids that came to me.  Charter schools have to do the same.  No charter school should get a penny of public money unless it is willing to serve “all” children.  A child may get into a charter through a lottery, but once there, the student must be served no matter what.  By the way, I have not yet seen a charter school devoted solely to special needs students!

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2 thoughts on “The True Face of Charters

  1. This is a really interesting post. I am a social worker at a Committee on Special Education so I deal mostly with private school students and public school preschoolers but I know very, very little about charter schools.

    I work solely with the special education population, and maybe that’s why. I guess I had just assumed that they too have self contained classrooms and Integrated classes. I hope this is the exception, and not common practice, for the children’s sake!

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