Author Archive | Allison Hertog

With education savings accounts, parents need help navigating

There’s no doubt that the rise of education savings accounts represents a revolution in the definition of public education that generates lots of excitement in the wonky world of education reform.  ESAs can be seen as the ultimate libertarian triumph of the parental choice movement. Whether they succeed or fail will depend, above all else, on whether parents are satisfied.

It’s too soon to know whether ESAs in Florida and elsewhere are truly catching on with parents.  But will parents choose to customize their children’s education, essentially creating schools of one, or will they decide it’s a task better left to professional providers or, God forbid, bureaucrats?

Many ESA parents will want their kids to have an educational program that mirrors the structure of what they would have in public school, only better.  That is, they’ll want their kids to have physical education, art, music, maybe even dance and horseback riding, not to mention all the academic classes.   As a former educator and parent, even thinking about that prospect is exhausting.

Now, imagine adding to that the therapies and specialized instruction that comes with having a special needs child.  Then imagine being a low-income single parent and assembling an education for your child while trying to hold down a job.  Continue Reading →

Cheese, charter schools & promising developments in special ed

cheeseCharter schools often have an awkward, if not contentious, relationship with their local districts. That makes sense, as the public charter school movement is essentially a reaction to what can be a cookie cutter way of educating kids in neighborhood schools. Yet charter schools are part of the very same district (or state) that funds the neighborhood schools. It’s as if they’re siblings – they have the same parents but are often rivals – vying for funding, control, students, and political power among other things. Some district/charter relationships are cooperative, but others are rancorous, as illustrated by recent disputes in New York City and Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, both those disputes involved special education to some extent – probably the most complex, expensive and controversial area of teaching.

In most states, charter schools have the option of freeing themselves from these and other disputes by essentially becoming their own districts (legally termed Local Education Agencies or “LEAs”).  But the vast majority of charters, even in states like California, where they have the option of becoming their own LEAs, have not taken on the responsibility of fully controlling their own special education programs – possibly out of fear, ignorance or politics.  Fortunately, many of the more competent and high-achieving California charters – like KIPP, Aspire, and Rocketship – have chosen the path of autonomy and accountability and are leaving behind special education disputes with districts.

Where I work in Florida, where essentially charter schools don’t have the option of becoming their own LEAs (as is also the case in places like Virginia, Maryland and Kansas, and in New York for special education purposes), these special education disputes are problematic for many reasons. They’re terribly inefficient; they come at the expense of children; and they fly in the face of the charter school movement’s supposed commitment to autonomy and accountability.

To illustrate why it makes sense that some of the most competent charters are choosing to become their own LEAs and take full responsibility for special education, I’m going to use a business analogy that doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of disabled children.

Imagine a young entrepreneur who runs a new and successful Italian restaurant called “Vagare.” Vagare (i.e., the charter school in this story) has grown to serve roughly 300 customers a day. But in this city there’s a local corporate giant: “The Italian Restaurant Company” (i.e., the district). Founded in the late 1800’s, the IRC has virtually cornered the market on Italian restaurants. It serves thousands of customers daily, owns hundreds of locations, and controls restaurant supply firms and food supply chains. You get the picture.

The IRC has contracted out some of its locations and provides certain supplies to Vagare and other smaller restaurants. Vagare locally sources most of its ingredients except for Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which, by contract, it is required to obtain from the IRC, which buys it in bulk from Italy. Continue Reading →

Feds going too far in plan to oversee private voucher schools?

I have dedicated my life to helping disabled students – first as a special education teacher and, for the last many years, as an attorney for parents of disabled children. As strongly as I support the rights of disabled students to be educated on an equal playing field with their typical peers, I do not completely agree with the kind of heavy governmental oversight of private schools that the U.S. Department of Justice mandated last month in its much-publicized letter to the Wisconsin superintendent of public schools.



In that letter, the DOJ finds the State of Wisconsin is obligated to “eliminate discrimination” against students with disabilities in its private school voucher program, regardless of whether the private schools accept federal funds.

Because they take federal funds, states are of course charged with meeting certain federal civil rights mandates in their administration of public schools. I am not an expert in school choice law, or the Americans with Disabilities Act for that matter. But what appears to be new here is that because Wisconsin administers a school choice program, it must “ensure” that participating private schools, regardless of whether they take federal funds, adhere to some of the most important mandates of the ADA.

The private and religious status of the individual voucher schools does not absolve DPI of its obligation to assure that Wisconsin’s school choice programs do not discriminate against persons with disabilities as required under Title II [of the Americans with Disabilities Act.]

The letter was precipitated by a complaint filed in June 2011 by the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin. It alleged the Milwaukee voucher program discriminates against kids with disabilities and segregates them in public schools. It claimed that of the 21,000 students enrolled in private voucher schools, 1.6 percent had plans that specified special needs services, compared to about 20 percent of students in the Milwaukee public school system. Voucher advocates such as Patrick Wolf, who completed a study in 2012, have found less discrepant rates of disability in the Milwaukee program.

An important note: Wisconsin’s voucher programs are not designed specifically to serve children with special needs, such as Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. They are designed to serve all students with family incomes up to 300 percent above the poverty level.

Nonetheless, the result of the DOJ letter is the state must seriously ramp up its oversight of the private secular and religious schools participating in its voucher programs, including the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest voucher program in the country.

Some oversight is, of course, warranted. In our country, private schools can’t discriminate against students based on their race for instance, regardless of whether the schools take government funds. And private schools which don’t take federal funds shouldn’t discriminate in their admissions and suspensions process against students who can meet the demands of the school if provided with reasonable accommodations and supports.

However, not all private entities in our society have a public purpose. Some private schools choose to forego the benefits of federal monies because they want to provide a certain type of education to a certain type of student population – be it a nunnery or a secular feeder high school to the Ivies. In the later case, even a private school which takes federal funds is totally within the confines of the ADA to discriminate against a child applicant with intellectual disabilities who cannot meet its academic demands. When a private school foregoes government money, it should not be subject to the same government oversight as a school which reaps the benefits of it. Continue Reading →

Charter schools and RTI could better benefit special education students

Last spring the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a study concluding that charter schools enroll a lower percentage of special education students than traditional public schools. Some commentators have questioned this study’s methodology and conclusions, while others believe it confirms what they have seen in practice. Regardless of where you stand on that debate, charter schools have a great opportunity to increase their special education admissions and improve how well public education serves all struggling students.

Charter schools can do this by using a bottom-up model called Response to Intervention, along with the Common Core standards. Response to Intervention can be employed in any school – private, public, charter, maybe even virtual – but it is particularly well-suited for implementation and success in charter schools because of their enhanced freedom to enact school-wide reforms.

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a special education reform codified into the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It’s designed to decrease the rolls of special education students. Following a dramatic rise of the number of students identified as specific learning disabled (SLD) in the 1990s, researchers from the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation suggested in a landmark 2001 paper, Rethinking Learning Disabilities, that the SLD label was a “catch-all” for low-achieving students which serves as a “sociological sponge that attempts to wipe up general education’s spills and cleanse its ills.” A 2002 report from a presidential commission on special education stated up to 40 percent of children identified for special education weren’t truly disabled, but were simply not taught to read properly. Continue Reading →

New voucher program for dyslexic students deserves a look

Mississippi recently became the first state in the nation to adopt a public and private school choice program in which state and federal monies are provided directly to schools which parents choose. Aimed at students with dyslexia, it’s also the second special needs school choice program in the country designed for children with a single type of disability. (Ohio’s Autism Scholarship Program enacted in 2003 was the first.)

What makes this new program interesting is that it may be a starting point for other state legislatures where special needs voucher bills have failed due to concerns about parent accountability – Wisconsin comes to mind – or where special needs voucher laws have come under increased scrutiny due to reports of private school abuse of public money – Florida comes to mind. 

Mississippi’s program morphed from a dyslexia screening and treatment bill (supported by a governor who struggled with the learning disorder) into a school choice measure during the proverbial sausage-making legislative process. It’s not as carefully or as broadly designed as it could have been. It also appears there’s currently only one school in the state which is specialized enough to meet the exceedingly specific criteria to participate. But nonetheless, it succeeds in incentivizing the growth of more highly-accountable school options for parents. Continue Reading →

Testing makes McKay Scholarships accountable to parents

In Robyn Rennick’s post on Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities last week, she argued that standardized testing measures are “inappropriate,” even “cruel,” for disabled children due to their diverse levels of achievement and in some cases immeasurable levels of progress. But this assumes that standardized testing is a “one size fits all” accountability measure. In reality, there are dozens, even hundreds, of standardized assessments that are designed for every segment of the student population – whether children are learning self-care or calculus.  The choice of test can be left to the private school, not the state.

More importantly, standardized testing is perhaps the only way to provide parents with the data they need to make informed choices about schools, and it is emerging as the overwhelming accountability trend for school voucher programs nationwide. Without standardized testing data, the McKay program cannot prove that it’s effective for students – the vast majority of whom are not intellectually disabled and spend most of their time in classrooms alongside typical students. According to the most recent state Department of Education report, only 7.5 percent of all McKay students are labeled Intellectually Disabled, though there are clearly some others with cognitive deficits who are labeled with other disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Every voucher program enacted or expanded in 2011 and 2012 (in Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington, D.C.) – except for the McKay Scholarship in 2011 – included standardized testing measures. What’s more, the Romney Education Plan, which proposes to voucherize federal special-education funding, includes annual student accountability testing for private schools precisely so that parents can make informed decisions. McKay is clearly behind that trend, which is an unfortunate development for this once ground-breaking program. Continue Reading →