Parents of special-needs children have filed a lawsuit against the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy–or Sci Academy, as it’s known–and six other privately-run charter schools in New Orleans, claiming that these publicly-funded, privately-run schools have been excluding students with disabilities from school activities NOLA and failing to provide those enrolled with the special help they need.
According to one account, 200 students at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy were invited to watch a broadcast of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey presenting a million-dollar check to the school principal and participated in a band celebration afterwards, but one student was excluded from the activities–a 16-year-old 9th grader with emotional and learning disabilities. School administrators were concerned that his aggressive behavior would embarrass them, according to his great uncle. The boy required speech therapy and intensive counseling, which the the Sci Academy failed to provide. Instead, the school repeatedly suspended the boy and prohibited him from riding the school bus with the other students, according to an attorney representing the boy.
School records revealed that another charter school in the area recommended that a student with depression be expelled after she cut herself with a scissors in class. An administrator and aide at another area school carried an agitated third-grade boy into an empty room and restrained him until the boy urinated on himself. Administrators at yet another charter school ordered a former special-education coordinator to stop talking to parents after she advised them that their children should be getting more services than they were receiving.
Both charter and public schools are required by federal law to educate and accommodate students with disabilities. Many charter schools don’t follow the rules, however, choosing to simply exclude such students or decline to provide the services they need, and it’s all because of money. According to the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit research group, charter schools receive less tax money than public schools. Therefore, they can’t afford to take in students who will cost tens of thousands of dollars to educate.
In addition to the academy that received Oprah’s donation, the other New Orleans charter schools accused of discrimination include ones that receive donations from Microsoft’s Chairman Bill Gates, Wal-Mart’s Walton family, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. These sizable donations are still not enough to make up for the funds afforded to well-funded district schools, however.
A 2010 Ball State University study found that charter schools receive an average of $9,460 per student in federal, state and local funds, amounting to roughly 19 percent less than public schools. The charter schools that do get special-education funding regularly do not get enough to adequately serve students with serious disabilities.
A former White House staffer who oversaw federal special education programs stated that charter schools’ exclusion of special-needs students is a measure to help protect their school budgets. Funding necessary to go toward educating these students might go toward hiring more teachers to reduce class size instead. The former staffer also stated that charters have been known to exclude students with disabilities to improve reported academic results of the schools, since special-needs students tend to score lower on standardized tests.
Todd Ziebarth, vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that charter schools need to form cooperatives so they will able to accommodate special-needs students, especially those with serious disabilities. The superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District agrees, stating that the New Orleans is pushing to establish cooperatives so that charter schools will have the resources necessary to serve students with disabilities.
For more on this topic, watch this interview with one of the litigating parents from the lawsuit:
For more information on the New Orleans Sci Academy, watch this video covering Oprah’s Angel Network 2010 donation and the goals of the school itself:
UPDATE: Please see the statement posted in the comments section addressing the Bloomberg allegations directly by the Principal and Founder Board Chair of Sci Academy, including a response from the attorney representing one of the children at the school.