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.

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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 acceptfewer 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.

The logical conclusion to such a system, where cities have no incentive to invest equally in all schools, is that children deemed somehow “exceptional” are prioritized over those who are not. Those lucky enough to qualify based on academic or artistic ability are welcomed into a great school, and those who don’t are left to whatever school will take them. In the current competitive education climate, where schools depend on high ranks to stay in good standing, there is little incentive for good schools to take kids who won’t boost their profile. According to Advocates for Children, an organization that serves students with disabilities and other marginalized populations, selective schools, therefore, have historically neglected to admit proportional numbers of special needs students.

“In the past, there have been some really significant barriers to students with disabilities attending not just selective schools, but [their] preferred schools,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator at Advocates for Children.

Those angry with the DOE claim that selective schools do admit special-needs kids who qualify, and that forcing schools to admit more special ed students isn’t fair to those who got in by audition. The problem, though, is that these schools were admitting disproportionately low amounts of disabled students. Without the DOE putting its finger on the scale, admissions could have continued to privilege only students with the resources and advocacy to access these programs.

“Every child deserves a great school, and we made offers to students who not only expressed a strong interest in those programs, but are very capable of handling the workload,” said Devon Puglia, a spokesperson for the DOE. “This is about equity and access – ensuring that unfilled seats are used by students who will benefit greatly.”

These students had expressed interest in the programs they were admitted to by “ranking” them highly, but did not complete the application process. Meanwhile, the programs had unfilled seats from not “ranking” enough qualified students. Thus, the DOE admitted special and general ed populations that would fit in academically, and who would have otherwise been denied access to the schools.

Middle schoolers citywide must “rank” the high schools they’d like to go to, essentially listing them in order of preference from 1 to 12. Some schools require attendance at an information session or open house, others depend on test scores and academic performance, some are audition-based; only zoned schools base admissions on neighborhood residence.

High schools then “rank” students, making a list of those they hope to admit. Similar to college applications, students may be admitted to multiple schools and have to decide which one they’ll attend. That means that schools may end up with unfilled seats, depending on how many students were admitted and how many actually accepted. Until last year, schools would then reach back into the pool of students who applied to find the next best matches; this year, the DOE forced the schools’ hands on inclusion by admitting the qualified general and special-ed students in question.

According to Paola De Kock, a spokesperson for the Citywide Council on High Schools (CCHS), an advisory board that advocates for the city’s public high schools, the ranking system leaves both kids and schools in a tough spot. Schools are often left with unfilled seats due to competition with other selective schools. And it’s difficult for kids, regardless of ability, to learn extensively about 12 schools during the application process.

“People don’t understand how hard it is to see what the school is really about,” she said. “Choice is great, as long as you have a lot of information.”

Besides information, it requires time and parental support, not to mention informed and passionate guidance counselors, for a middle schooler to visit even half as many schools as they must rank. Working parents, language barriers, lack of childcare and transportation costs could all prevent a child from being able to attend information sessions and open houses, as well as interviews and auditions.

But the process is even more difficult for students with disabilities, who may need extra support navigating tests, interviews and auditions.

According to Moroff, “The onus needs to be on the school system to make sure that those accommodations are provided, not necessarily on the families. It's not a friendly process for students with disabilities and their families.”

Currently, NYC special-education students may be in self-contained classes or schools, meaning they are surrounded by other students with similar disabilities; they may be in combined classes, which are team-taught and include a mixture of general and special ed kids; or they may attend primarily general ed classes but receive “related services,” such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy or counseling. Selective schools may not offer such services to the extent a special ed student needs, even if he or she is otherwise qualified.

“Services in those schools haven't traditionally been extensive,” Moroff said. “Schools need to build their capacity to provide related services.”

In addition to the logistical barriers, there are often physical barriers as well, such as lack of wheelchair access or elevators. Moroff emphasized that these are just a few of the challenges students with disabilities face in finding a great school that welcomes them, and that without a greater push for inclusion, disproportionate amounts of kids remain in self-contained programs. For example, District 75, the city’s non-geographic district for students with severe disabilities, offers smaller class sizes and extra support, such as 6:1:1 (6 students, 1 paraprofessional, 1 teacher) classes for children with autism, matching children with similar learning needs who mutually benefit from learning alongside each other. But while self-contained programs may be the best fit for some, students should have greater access to all that the city has to offer — these new DOE reforms are a step toward that goal. Physical, intellectual, communicative, emotional or behavioral disabilities and differences have no correlation to a child’s potential to succeed in a selective program, if the program is a good match for them.

“Clearly there are students with disabilities out there who are talented in the arts... there are students with disabilities out there who are gifted and talented,” Moroff said. “What has to happen is that schools in the DOE need to be working much more to welcome and embrace and identify those kids.”

Much of the press around the DOE reforms has focused on the performing arts high schools, although the 71 schools affected include schools with a wide variety of specializations. The principal at Frank Sinatra High School in Queens, Donna Finn, told Inside Schools that she found the decision “despicable” and emphasized that underprepared students would struggle in the “pre-conservatory program.” Finn also emphasized that her school does not have special-ed services, such as self-contained classrooms or Integrated Co-Teaching, in place, thus doing a disservice to the needs of the new students. But disability advocates say that lack of support in selective schools is part of the problem.

Although the New York City school system offers elite programs that are a mixture of public and charter, access is clearly restricted by the amount of resources and support children have, both at home and at middle school. A report at NPR’s Schoolbook blog quoted a parent at performing arts school Talent Unlimited, who said, “We’re going to be receiving children who didn’t go through the process at all, while I’ve spent thousands of dollars on my daughter’s artistic development over the course of her life.”

The choice system benefits those with the toolbox to use it. In a climate where student test scores and schools’ reputations and rankings determine both funding and elite status, what incentive does a school have to reach out to disabled populations who may have different learning needs? And in addition to students with disabilities, where does this leave general-ed kids without advocates?

“They need more than the school is able to give them,” CCHS’s De Kock said of the admitted general-ed students. If those students perform poorly, she added, they will bring down the grade report for the schools.

Now, as the city makes changes to make selective programs be more inclusive, some parents feel educational quality will suffer, while disability advocates say there's still a long way to go before students with disabilities are welcomed with open arms.

In the landscape of choice, some kids are more desirable than others; the mass closing of public schools in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia shows all too clearly how some populations of children are treated as dispensable. As investment in public education continues to be attacked by “education reformers” eager to close community schools, kids not deemed “exceptional” will continue to be marginalized.

Molly Knefel is a writer, comedian, and co-host of Radio Dispatch, a political podcast that airs Monday-Thursday. Follow her at @mollyknefel.