US Education System Earns a C

Education Week is a non-partisan publication which produces an annual national and state by state report card on the health of our education system. Sadly, the 2017 report released today does not bring good news. Overall, for the third year in a row, the report gives the American education system a C grade, certainly nothing to brag about. Thirty-four states including my home state of Wisconsin, which earned merely a C+, fell into the C- through C+ grade range.

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To  come up with that score, the report uses a multifaceted analysis, with 3 broad categories: K-12 Achievement; Chance for Success and School  Finance.

Chance for Success considers many critical factors in the lives of our children which help determine the probability that they will have a successful educational experience, including:

  • Family income
  • Parent education
  • Parent employment
  • English fluency
  • Preschool enrollment
  • Kindergarten enrollment
  • Elementary reading achievement
  • High school graduation rate
  • Young adult education
  • Adult education attainment
  • Annual income
  • Steady employment

School Finance also uses a multifaceted analysis including both equity and spending.

Wisconsin’s score breaks down as follows with its lowest score (D+) being in spending which raises serious questions as to how it will improve in the coming years:

Chance for Success: B (83.0)
*Early foundations: A- (90.3)
*School years: B- (79.9)
*Adult outcomes: B- (79.7)
K-12 Achievement: C (74.6)
*Status: C+ (76.7)
*Change: C- (69.9)
*Equity: C+ (79.2)
School Finance: C+ (79.1)
*Equity: B+ (89.2)
*Spending: D+ (69.0)

Unfortunately, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) means that each state gets to choose its path towards improvement. Given the stagnant lack of significant improvement over many years, skeptics have every reason  to be concerned that any significant progress will be made in the foreseeable future. As the Report Overview states:

The question that loomed over the celebrations hailing ESSA’s passage in December 2015 remains: What will more state control mean for historically overlooked groups of students?
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s superintendent of public instruction, recalled that when ESSA became law, an influential civil rights leader in his state tweeted that he’d lived through states’ rights and it hadn’t worked out very well, a reference to segregation.
“I took that to heart, I took it as a personal obligation” to make equity for all groups a central tenet of Wisconsin’s plan, Evers said.
Civil rights advocates are heartened by such sentiments, but caution that states have a lot of decisions left to make.
“We’re still kind of in the thick of it,” said Daria Hall, the interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates in support of poor and minority students. “There’s a lot of conversation going on right now, but I don’t think we’re at a point where we can definitively say here’s where that conversation is leading us, for good, bad, or other.”

Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers is running for re-election in April and faces 2 opponents, John Humphries and Lowell Holtz, so there will be a primary in February. Parents, advocates and voters who care about Wisconsin’s education  system should ask all 3 candidates how they intend to improve Wisconsin’s education system given these long standing mediocre results.

Unfortunately, the Wisconsin State Superintendent has no power over the state’s spending on education and does not write the laws that govern our education system, so parents, educators and advocates will need to pressure the Governor and state legislature to demand more funding and less diversion to private school voucher programs and charter schools which have failed to improve Wisconsin’s educational outcomes.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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Key Protections for Students with Disabilities

Before leaving office, President Obama’s Department of Education issued critical protections for students with disabilities in 4 key documents. Given the desire of the incoming administration’s proposed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to expand charter and voucher schools, these documents will provide important protections for students with disabilities in the coming years.

USDOE

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a comprehensive 47 page Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools which provides important guidance especially because most states fail to enforce this important law in public schools  and it is often ignored or misunderstood by public schools.

Key provisions include:

A school district must evaluate a student if it has reason to believe the student has a disability and the student needs special education or related services as a result of that disability, even if the student only exhibits behavioral (and not academic) challenges.

In OCR’s investigative experience, school districts sometimes rely on a student’s average, or better-than-average, classroom grades or grade point average (GPA) and, as a result, make inappropriate decisions. For example, a school district might wrongly assume that a student with an above-average GPA does not have a disability and therefore fail to conduct a Section 504 evaluation of that student, even if the school suspects that the student has ADHD or the school is aware that the student has been diagnosed with ADHD outside of school.

However, a student with a disability may achieve a high level of academic success but may nevertheless be substantially limited in a major life activity due to the student’s impairment because of the additional time or effort the student must spend to read, write, or learn compared to others.

School districts violate Section 504 when they deny or delay conducting an evaluation of a student when it would have been reasonable for a staff member to have suspected that a student has a disability and needs special education or related services because of that disability.

Section 504 is critically important for students with disabilities who need reasonable accommodations and/or modifications to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) but do not require special education. As OCR states:

To the extent that services and aids, or changes to policies and procedures (for example, allowing testing accommodations such as extended time for exams) for a student with a disability can be implemented by a student’s regular education teacher, the regular education teacher is responsible for implementing them.

For example, a regular education teacher may need to provide a student with a disability an outline of the teacher’s lecture, permit the student to sit in the front of the classroom, or allow the student to turn in homework late.

However, the school district is ultimately responsible for ensuring there are sufficient qualified personnel available to provide the supplemental and related aids and services.

Sec. 504 provides important protections for students with disabilities who are bullied or harassed due to their disabilities.

Appropriate steps to end harassment may include separating the student who was harassed and the student(s) engaged in the harassing behavior, providing counseling for the students, or taking disciplinary action against the harasser. These steps should not penalize the student who was harassed.

OCR also issued a comprehensive 23 page Dear Colleague letter on Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities. Key concepts include:

For a student already identified as a student with a disability, a school’s use of restraint or seclusion could be evidence that the student’s current array of regular or special education and related aids and services is not addressing the student’s needs. Because the Section 504 FAPE obligation is ongoing, when a school district has reason to believe that the student’s educational needs are not being met, it must consider different or additional approaches or services to address the student’s behavioral needs, and if necessary, reevaluate the student, which could include evaluating the need for positive behavioral interventions and supports and other strategies to address the student’s behavior that could mitigate or eliminate the need for restraint and seclusion.

In OCR’s view, persuasive indicators that a student’s needs are not being met appropriately would include: situations that would impede the student’s learning or that of others, such as new or more frequent emotional outbursts by the student, or an increase in the frequency or intensity of behavior; a sudden change into withdrawn, non-communicative behavior; and/or a significant rise in missed classes or sessions of Section 504 services. A notable drop in academic performance, such as a sudden decline in grades, could also be an indicator of the need to consider different or additional approaches or services, but a change in a student’s academic performance is not a necessary indicator in every instance. Alternatively, a student’s current array of services might only address the student’s academic challenges but now must be modified to address new or changed disability-related behavioral challenges that the student may be experiencing. These and other indicators that the student’s behavior is out of the expected range of behaviors of students that age could trigger a school district’s Section 504 obligation to determine if the student’s needs are being met appropriately, and whether a reevaluation is needed under Section 504.

While federal law does not prohibit the use of seclusion and restraint, the use of these aversive techniques in inappropriate or discriminatory circumstances can violate federal law.

When a school district restrains or secludes a student with a disability for behavior that would not result in the restraint or seclusion of peers without disabilities, OCR would likely find that the school district engaged in unnecessary different treatment on the basis of disability prohibited by Section 504. Similarly, a school district that subjects a student to restraint or seclusion on the basis of assumptions or stereotypes about disability also engages in conduct prohibited by Section 504.

The repeated use of restraint or seclusion in school could deny a student’s receipt of FAPE in another way. Consider a student with a disability who engages in behavior in response to which the school secludes him for extended periods and on multiple occasions. While secluded, the student does not receive educational instruction or services. Cumulatively, the school’s repeated use of seclusion with that student could result in the school’s failure to comply with the Section 504 team’s decision about the regular or special education, related aids and services, or supplemental services and modifications that the student needs, or the appropriate setting in which to receive those services and therefore may constitute a denial of FAPE.

Last, but not least, the Department of Education issued two Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) covering the rights of students with disabilities in charter schools under both Sec. 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

While state laws vary resulting in complex charter school governing statutes, one key concept remains valid regardless of the nature of the charter school:

All children with disabilities in charter schools must receive special education and related services and supplementary aids and services in accordance with the child’s IEP.

Regarding students who are not yet eligible for special education but are suspected of having a disability, the child find requirements in IDEA require states and school districts to have policies and procedures in effect to ensure that all children with disabilities residing in the State who need special education and related services are identified, located, and evaluated, regardless of the severity of the disability. This responsibility includes highly mobile and migrant children with disabilities. The child find requirements apply to children enrolled in charter schools, regardless of whether the charter school operates as its own school district or is a public school within a school district.

In instances where charter schools are established to specifically serve students with disabilities,

Before a child with a disability is placed in a charter school established for a specific purpose related to the education of children with specific disabilities (i.e., to provide services for children in a specific disability category), the placement team must ensure that the child is able to receive a program of FAPE consistent with his or her IEP.

Given the growth of on-line virtual charter schools it is critical to understand that:

For example, virtual charter school LEAs must: (1) ensure that each eligible child with a disability has FAPE available to him or her; (2) implement evaluation and eligibility requirements; (3) carry out the IEP requirements, including those governing IEP content, IEP Team participants, parent participation, when IEPs must be in effect, consideration of special factors, the development, review, and revision of IEPs, secondary transition services and participation in State and districtwide assessment programs; and (4) implement the requirements regarding education in the least restrictive environment, including ensuring the availability of a continuum of alternative placements to provide special education and related services.

Regarding charter schools and Sec. 504, a key point is that regardless of whether it is a virtual on-line or bricks and mortar charter school:

Charter school students with disabilities, including current and prospective charter school students with disabilities, have the same rights under Section 504 as other current and prospective public school students with disabilities at the elementary and secondary school level.

Sec. 504 has broader coverage than the IDEA.

Section 504 protects all qualified students with disabilities in charter schools. Under Section 504, a student with a disability is a person who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity; (2) has a record of such an impairment; or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.

Similarly, charter schools cannot get around their obligations under Sec. 504 by contracting out their services  to private entities.

The bottom line is the Sec. 504 prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities.

This prohibition applies to the content of recruitment materials and to all recruitment activities, including formal presentations to, and informal conversations with, parents of prospective students. Additionally, all recipients must ensure that recruitment materials include a notice that the recipient does not discriminate on the basis of disability in violation of Section 504 in, among other things, the admission and treatment of students.

For example:

Statements indicating discrimination in recruitment would include those:

  • Based directly on disability (e.g., “students with an intellectual disability will not be accepted”);
  • Based indirectly on disability (e.g., “all students are required to be present at school at least 170 of the 180 school days per year without exception” would indicate discrimination under Section 504 against prospective students with a disability that causes them to miss more than ten school days per year);
  • Based on noncompliance with an obligation that is required of the recipient under Section 504 (e.g., “students with a current or previous IEP or Section 504 plan will not be admitted” or “students who require a sign language interpreter will not be admitted”).

This is just a summary of these 4 important pieces of federal guidance. Interested educators, parents and advocates would be wise to study the complete documents linked above, and show them to schools that may be operating contrary to the law. The bottom line is that with less than a month left in its administration President Obama’s Department of Education has provided critical protection to students with disabilities which educators must heed, and parents and advocates must  work hard to protect when the new administration takes office.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Charter School Expansion: Whither Accountability?

Wisconsin’s powerful Joint Finance Committee recently approved a dramatic change to Wisconsin’s charter school authorization law. This change would expand so-called independent charter schools to over 140 new school districts. More troubling is that the new charter school authorizers would include the University of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee and Waukesha County Executives, tribal colleges and Gateway Technical Colleges, adding to the already confusing maze of Wisconsin school choices.

FallGuide09cartoon(cartoon by Eric Joselyn)

Sen. Alberta Darling acknowledged that this provision did not include any oversight for these new charter schools. Perhaps she and her colleagues who passed this provision failed to understand that they cannot change federal law which contains quite a few obligations for charter schools.

As I wrote about a year ago, charter schools are public schools and they must comply with federal civil rights laws. In fact, perhaps due to the confusion wrought by charter expansion, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter last year that made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.

In summary, that letter confirms that:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability)

all apply to all operations of charter schools.

including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

Specifically,

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions, meaning:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services. Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face. But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content.

Together with the U.S. Department of Justice, as I have written previously, the U.S. Department of Education has also clarified that, like all other public schools, charter schools must also administer discipline in a nondiscriminatory manner, which is an important component in stemming the tide of the schools to prison pipeline.

If this highly problematic provision passes the full Wisconsin legislature and is signed into law by Governor Walker, it will be interesting to see how all of these new charter entities will implement state and federal special education law, which requires them to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and includes many protections to prevent discriminatory disciplinary exclusion of children with disabilities. Each one of these new chartering entities will need to be sure that it assigns a local education agency representative to each Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting who has the knowledge of all the charter school’s resources and the authority to commit them to students with disabilities whose IEPs require such services.

Of course, in order to be effective, civil rights laws must be enforced. Concerned parents and advocates can contact OCR at (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov, since OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate any civil rights laws. Contact information and complaint forms can be found here. It will be up to parents and advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

Parents who believe charter schools have violated state or federal special education law may file complaints with the state education agency. In Wisconsin, you can find information about how to file a complaint and a sample form here.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Read my Lips: Charter Schools are Public Schools & Must Comply with Civil Rights Laws

The battle lines have been drawn in the education reform movement.  There are those who would privatize as much of our public education through vouchers as possible, and they are strongly opposed by those who defend public education at all costs.  As is often the case, when the vitriol gets louder, confusion reigns, and in education reform, confusion has reigned supreme in the charter school arena.

Many who oppose school privatization oppose charter schools, despite their potential for innovation,  because they believe that charter schools are just another vehicle for privatizing and therefore destroying public schools.  Fortunately, the US Department of Education (USDOE), has made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.  In a guidance letter issued by the USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on May 14, 2014, it was made abundantly clear that,

These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

The guidance letter specifies 4 key federal laws that apply to charter schools:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability).

The OCR letter states that a separate guidance letter will be issued in collaboration with the USDOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) to address charter schools’ obligations to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Eduction Act (IDEA).

Some key provisions of the new guidance letter are:

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions.  This includes:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services.Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face.  But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. (emphasis supplied) A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content. Federal civil rights laws do not, however, require any school, including a charter school, to adopt or implement any particular educational model or program of instruction for English-language learners; schools have substantial flexibility to determine how they will satisfy their legal obligations to meet these students’ needs.

The latest guidance on charter schools also affirms that the prior guidance issued by the USDOE jointly with the US Dept. of Justice on discriminatory school discipline also applies to charter schools.  As I wrote about previously, this guidance is an important step in stopping the schools to prison pipeline.

Of course, laws are only as good as their enforcement, so it is good that OCR ends its guidance by providing a link to its contact information and complaint form.  It also provides its toll free number and e-mail address: (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov.  OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate the law.  It will be up to advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Wisconsin Charter School Bill Exacerbates Failure to Serve Students with Disabilities

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.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.