As the Wisconsin legislature attempts once again to expand so-called independent charter schools statewide through the introduction of AB 549, it is important to analyze the impact of such an expansion on children with disabilities. In Florida, an investigation showed that charter schools failed to serve children with disabilities. As demonstrated below, it is clear that many provisions of AB 549 would encourage Wisconsin charter schools to refuse to serve children with disabilities thereby increasing the segregation already found by the US Dept. of Justice in Milwaukee’s voucher schools. In addition, passage of AB 549 would complicate who is responsible for providing special education in charter schools.
The first problem with AB 549 is in its granting permission for a pupil to attend any independent charter school anywhere in Wisconsin. Not only does this fly in the face of special education law’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team based placement process, but it also muddies the water of who is responsible for following both state and special education law. Is it the charter school or the local school district which is responsible for providing students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE)?
The second problem is the mandatory requirement to approve additional charter contracts for charter schools that have a “proven track record of success.” While this may seem attractive, the definition of “proven track record of success” is that students in the charter school must have a 10% or higher number of its students scoring advanced or proficient on state assessments than students attending the local school district in which the charter school is located. Not only is this problematic due to the ability of students from outside the local district to attend the charter school, but it is also a clear disincentive for the charter school to admit any students with lower test scores including those with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELL). Charges of exactly this kind of disability discrimination have arisen in Ohio.
Perhaps most shocking of all is the attempt by AB 549 to eliminate charter schools’ obligation to follow state special education law. Despite this crude attempt, there is no doubt that charter schools are still public schools obligated to follow all federal civil rights laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
For the moment, it appears that while this bill may pass Wisconsin’s Assembly, it may not pass the Senate due to insufficient support from majority Republicans. Advocates for children with disabilities would do well to voice their opposition to AB 549 with moderate Senate Republicans for the reasons stated herein.