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What Happens to Special-Education Students in a Landscape of 'School Choice'?

The controversy surrounding the NYC Department of Education’s recent decision to require selective schools to admit special-needs students illustrates the troubles with “school choice.”

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For New York City schoolchildren, the process of visiting schools in search of a good match, worrying about assessments and tests, filling out applications and writing long essays starts long before preparing for college. Some kids begin competitive testing and applications as early as pre-K, hoping to get into gifted and talented programs.

The opportunity to get into the best programs the city has to offer continues throughout elementary and middle school, and culminates with the high school application process. This is when all of the hundreds of thousands of students in the city rank their favorite schools, both public and charter, and compete in hopes of gaining admission to a school that will put them on the track toward a bright future.

This spring, a set of reformsby the New York City Department of Education (DOE) allowed an expanded group of students entry into the very best programs in the city. These students include about 900 general-ed and 300 special-ed students. The city’s “special education” designation spans an extraordinarily broad spectrum, from physical, developmental or intellectual disability to emotional and behavioral disorders. The decision has angered parents and community members, who feel the students didn’t deserve the spots.

As part of the DOE admissions for the 2013-2014 school year, more than 1,000 students were placed in 71 selective high schools around the city. Admissions for these high schools — selective for their exceptional artistic programs, rigorous academic standards or other types of specialized class offerings — are competitive, offering a limited amount of seats compared to the demand for kids who hope to attend. Admissions depend on standardized test scores, middle school report cards, interviews, essays and auditions for performing arts programs.

The students in question, though, were admitted to the selective schools without fully completing the application process; for example, some children were let into performing arts schools without auditioning.

The media coverage of the outrage surrounding the DOE’s decision has centered largely around employing disparaging, disrespectful and judgmental language to describe children with special needs. New York City education blog Inside Schools published a story titled “Selective schools forced to take special ed kids,” and Queens representative Dmytro Fedkowskys wrote in the Daily News that the decision will “force the programs to be watered down.”

The city, on the other hand, insists that the students had comparable academic standards to the rest of those admitted, and that they expressed strong interest in those schools when they ranked them to apply. In order to understand the controversy of selective schools being “forced” to admit kids they didn’t choose, it’s helpful to take a look at the city school system. Besides functioning as a microcosm of certain popular “education reform” ideas sweeping the country, NYC schools illustrate the disparity in access and opportunity for children with support and advocacy and those without.

New York City schools operate on a “choice” system, a model popular amongst Michelle Rhee-style education reformers and taking steam all over the country that encourages students to apply around the city in search of the best fit, rather than simply attend the school in their community. As used by “reformers” like Rhee, emphasis on choice often functions as a dog-whistle for neglecting or closing neighborhood public schools and opening charter schools.

Besides employing non-union teachers and privatizing education, charters accept fewer special needs students and English Language Learners, and struggle with children with behavioral challenges. And while plenty of New York City’s exceptional schools are public, not charter, they remain far more difficult for some children to access than traditional community schools. The choice system presents itself as an equalizing force, so that a bright or talented kid in a poor neighborhood in the Bronx could attend an elite school in Manhattan. Meanwhile, her neighborhood — or “zoned” — school in the Bronx is not prioritized; her peers who attend it may see the budget slashed, after-school programs cut, and face nonstop test prep to get scores up and keep the school off the chopping block. When choice is emphasized, community is not.

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