Putting Education Reform To The Test

Our Journey Into Florida’s Matrix


The matrix we visited was far less stylish.

Three months ago we sought to put some hard numbers on how many students with disabilities are enrolled in Florida charter schools.

We had no idea how elusive that data is.

First, we’ll skip to the end and tell you what our investigation uncovered: More than 86 percent of Florida charter schools have no students with severe disabilities. By comparison, more than half of traditional public schools have severely disabled students.

And students with disabilities in charter schools are often limited to schools that specialize in disabilities, creating a system that separates students with disabilities from their peers.

But getting to those numbers was a lot harder than it looks.

Local school districts track students in what some have nicknamed “the matrix,” a five-tiered system that sorts students by their educational needs. Gifted students end up in one category, while students with disabilities are sorted into other categories.

We were interested in students rated “254” and “255” – students who require the most services and are the most expensive to educate. That includes students with cerebral palsy, autism or Down syndrome. It could also include students who are blind, deaf, have brain injuries, require therapy or any of 17 categories school districts track.

We ran into a number of roadblocks along the way: Privacy concerns, technical issues and school districts which track the numbers in a dozen different ways.

The first stop was the Florida Department of Education. We asked for a school-by-school count of 254 and 255 students statewide.

The department initially gave our request a green light. More than two weeks later, they said they couldn’t provide us the data for technical reasons. They tried to say their database wouldn’t talk to Microsoft Excel, or any other commercially-available database program.

Finally, the state department hit us with a stop sign — FERPA, the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act.  FERPA prevented the state agency from telling us which schools had fewer than 10 students classified as 254 and 255, they said.

The reason? Telling us a school has one student with a severe disability might identify the student to his or her classmates or their parents.

The state even refused to say which schools had no students classified as 254 or 255, because that would also reveal something about the students at the school.

Any data the state could give us would likely not be useful to make comparisons or draw conclusions.

It was time for Plan B.

So we moved on to local school districts. We contacted 14 school districts which comprised most of the charter school enrollment in Florida: Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Lee, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota.

Hillsborough was the first to send us the list, which we provided as an example to other school districts.

What we got back was a mixed bag.

Two counties raised privacy issues, Broward and Palm Beach, but provided enough data to make a comparison.

Most counties gave us a list of schools with severely disabled students. We then had to check that against the state list of charter schools in each county.

We asked the state to check our data. At first, they said our data was just wrong – but they declined to share with us their analysis.

They were willing to tell us that three counties we thought had no charter schools serving disabled students actually did have some severely disabled students.

We called around and discovered that a handful of districts did not include charter schools in their response to our data request. One spokesman argued that charter school students are not the school district’s responsibility. Charter schools are funded with public dollars but run by a private board.

We had to go back to some districts to fill in gaps in the records, based on what the state told us.

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Tres Whitlock types on the DynaVox tablet that serves as his voice. Whitlock, 17, has cerebral palsy and can’t speak on his own. Whitlock is trying to enroll in a Hillsborough County charter school, but has yet to enroll because of concerns about the therapy and services he needs.

We doubled-checked our work with the state again, which analyzed charter schools statewide and not just in the 14 counties StateImpact Florida reviewed.

They confirmed what we found – that 86 percent of Florida’s charter schools do not serve a single student with a severe disability. But they are still declining to share that analysis with us.

All told it took us three months and more than $200 dollars in public records fees to compile the data for the story we published earlier today.

One more thing – we debated whether to publish the raw data on this website.

Doing so would have allowed others to review our work.

Ultimately, we decided the risk of inadvertently identifying students with disabilities outweighed the value of publishing the data.


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