Tres Whitlock and his family said they were surprised to find themselves in legal limbo when they tried to enroll their son in a Tampa charter school.
Tres Whitlock has cerebral palsy, and he said school officials told him they did not have the staff to meet his needs.
Whitlock’s mother, Tonya, said she still doesn’t understand the law’s ambiguity after months of dealing with school officials.
Tres was at the center of our investigation of charter schools. StateImpact Florida discovered that 86 percent of state charter schools did not serve a single child with a severe disability — compared to about half of public schools.
When we published and aired our investigation featuring Tres, one of the biggest questions was, “Doesn’t the law require charter schools to accommodate students like Tres?”
The answer, as you will see below, is complicated. Here are five questions about what the law requires for students with disabilities.
Are students with disabilities being discriminated against by some charter schools?
That depends on who you ask.
Legal experts like Columbia University’s Paul O’Neill say no. If a charter school can’t provide for a student’s needs, then that school is not appropriate for a student with disabilities.
Officials with the Florida Department of Education agree with O’Neill.
Charter schools are contained within the county school district, and the local school district is responsible for ensuring students with disabilities are getting the services they need.
No single school – charter or district – is expected to provide every service for every student, state officials said. But a school district can tap of its resources to make sure every student is taken care of.
“Charter schools do not have the infrastructure and economies of scale to provide special programs to meet the needs of those children,” said Michael Kooi, director of school choice programs at the Florida Department of Education.
But some argue that’s not enough.
Joy Zabala is a special education teacher who works at the Center for Applied Special Technology in Massachusetts.
“Charter schools, as part of the public school system, have no more ability to opt out of providing a particular service than any other part of the public school system.”
What is an Individualized Education Program?
An Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is a document required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that outlines which educational services schools must provide a student with disabilities.
An IEP is legally binding and intended to ensure students have access to general classrooms and not just special education classes.
The plan is drafted by students, parents and school district therapists and must be updated as the student progresses through school.
What services are charter schools required to provide?
Again, it depends who you ask.
Tres Whitlock said charter school officials told him they did not have anyone who could take him to the bathroom.
But charter schools can’t get out of educating students with disabilities just because they don’t offer a particular service, Zabala said. Hiring an aide to take a student to the bathroom is common request, she said.
“It’s very clear in the statute,” Zabala said. “It’s not what’s currently available; it’s what’s possible.
“That’s not even close to being reasonable,” she said.
Charter school advocates, such as Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, argues charters are a choice. No student is required to attend a charter.
If a parent is dissatisfied, they can enroll their student elsewhere.
As demand for alternatives for students with disabilities grows, she said, more new charter schools are specializing in students with disabilities.
More than 86 percent of charter schools have no severely disabled students. Is the unique to Florida?
No. Studies have found similar patterns in California, Louisiana, Texas and elsewhere.
Shawna Parks, legal director with the Disability Rights Legal Centerin Los Angeles said their group has seen “blatant discrimination” against students with disabilities.
But Parks also said charter school groups in California have been aggressively trying to deal with the problem. Many students with disabilities could benefit from the alternative methods that charter schools employ.
Norman-Teck said charter schools are addressing the issue as the movement matures.
Will courts decide which services charter schools must provide?
Almost everyone we spoke with conceded the law has gray areas.
Zabala said those gray areas are typically resolved in one of two ways: Practice or litigation.
Practice means that school districts and education officials settle on ideas and policies that work, and then adopt them across the country.
But lawsuits have already been filed in Louisiana and elsewhere.
Parks said her organization and others are seeking a court decision akin to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision that ruled racial segregation unconstitutional.
“That’s what we’re after,” Parks said.