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.

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Wisconsin Fails to Protect the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

As I reported last May,

I joined with the ACLU in filing a complaint with the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which clearly documents that Wisconsin’s private school voucher program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Recently, after a lengthy investigation, DOJ issued a directive to the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), which makes clear that DPI must eliminate discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee voucher program.

Since I am no longer at Disability Rights Wisconsin, I am not directly involved in that complaint.  However, my sources recently provided me with DPI’s stunning rebuke to DOJ in a letter dated November 25, 2013.  This letter is stunning for the length of time it took DPI to reply (over 7 months) demonstrating DPI’s utter indifference to the plight of children with disabilities in Wisconsin’s voucher (Choice) school program. It further disappoints due to DPI’s failure to accept responsibility to address the very real discrimination these students experience in this program.  As this letter is not available on-line, you can e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick if you want a copy.

First, DPI takes the position that it does not discriminate against children with disabilities in the administration of the voucher school program.  This, of course, misses the entire point of the complaint, which never accused DPI of such discrimination.  The complaint alleges massive discrimination by the voucher schools in keeping children with disabilities out of their schools, and further, that as administrator of the program, DPI must prevent and remedy such discrimination.

Next, while DPI has agreed (in an unspecified timeline) to,

establish and publicize a complaint procedure for individuals to submit complaints to the DPI regarding disability-related discrimination in the Choice program,

it goes on to express concern that it has no authority to do anything about many of those complaints, by stating that it can only withhold voucher funds regarding discrimination by voucher schools in the admission of students with disabilities.  While this is some progress, it does not address the very real failure of voucher schools to accommodate the educational needs of children with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In response to DOJ’s request that DPI gather disability related information from voucher schools, it then goes on to complain that it,

lacks statutory authority to force Choice to schools submit the information required for items requested.

What is so utterly disappointing about this continual denial of responsibility is that:

  1. DPI has done nothing to seek the authority it alleges it needs; and
  2. DOJ has made it clear that DPI’s obligation is under federal law (the ADA), so the lack of a state statute providing similar authority is irrelevant.

Can you imagine if DPI took the position that it had no authority to respond to discrimination against racial, ethnic or religious groups by voucher schools?  The public outcry would be tremendous, and so it should be in this instance as well.

Fortunately, DPI has agreed to conduct public outreach about the school choice program to students with disabilities, including the rights of students with disabilities in those programs. The problem, of course, is that if DPI will not enforce the rights of those students, there will be a serious credibility gap in that outreach.

Remarkably, DPI even refuses to provide ADA training to voucher schools, stating that,

DPI does not provide ADA training for any public schools in Wisconsin.

Instead, it is “willing” to have the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) conduct that training.  

As one of the initial filers of this complaint, I certainly hope that DOJ will not simply accept DPI’s excuse that it has no authority under the ADA.  Further DPI should use this as an opportunity to push for more authority to hold voucher schools accountable for their long-standing discrimination against children with disabilities.

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

Is the Tea Party really Advocating Anarchy?

While nobody in the Tea Party is likely to admit that their goal is anarchy, it is worth taking a closer look at the meaning of anarchy and the goals of those who wish to force a government shut down.  The dictionary definition of anarchy is:

absence of government.

It is not surprising then, that the next definition given by Merriam-Webster is:

a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority.

Grover Norquist has been actively involved in promoting the Tea Party and believes that it should serves as the “exoskeleton” that protects newly elected Republicans against the pressures bound to be imposed on newly elected officials by “the spending interests.”  His most famous quote is that:

Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.

The irony of this radical position advocating what amounts to anarchy, is that both Grover Norquist and every single Tea Party member enjoy the fruits of government on a daily basis.  They drive on government built and maintained roads.  They call the police and fire department and expect prompt service when necessary.  They collect Social Security and Medicare when they retire.  They expect our military to defend our nation when called upon.

So, if the Tea Party and Grover Norquist are not really advocating for anarchy, why does the Republican led U.S. House of Representatives pass a Continuing Budget Resolution that it knows will result in a government shut down?  Why does Senator Ted Cruz make a mockery of the Senate by engaging in a fruitless filibuster, including reading Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, that even his own party’s Senate leadership disavows?

The clear hypocrisy of Norquist and Cruz and their minions can only mean one thing.  What  they really want is the power to control where government spends its money.  The best example of this is the Tea Party’s advocacy for private school vouchers.  This advocacy does not really shrink government spending.  It just shifts it to private interests who are free to discriminate against children with disabilities, as I wrote about previously.

In fact, the Tea Party’s blog says quite clearly,

Because Freedom isn’t Free.

So, House Republicans and Senator Cruz, get off your high horses and stop advocating anarchy, because as the Tea Party states quite clearly: Freedom isn’t free.


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

Defending the Civil Rights of Children with Disabilities in Voucher Schools

The challenges which disenfranchised people face are as old as mankind. Fortunately, the courage to defend their civil rights also goes back millennia.  As the famous Rabbi Hillel said,

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a compelling sermon invoking the “if not now, when?” question at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta just 6 months before his assassination.

King specifically referenced the system of justice in his famous and compelling, Letter from Birmingham Jail, where he stated:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider…”

It was in that spirit that I joined with the ACLU in filing a complaint with the US Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which clearly documents that Wisconsin’s private school voucher program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Recently, after a lengthy investigation, DOJ issued a directive to the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), which makes clear that DPI must eliminate discrimination against children with disabilities in the Milwaukee voucher program and orders DPI to undertake the following actions:

  1. Establish and publicize a complaint process for parents of children with disabilities who believe their children have been discriminated against in the Milwaukee voucher program.
  2. Collect data to determine the extent to which children with disabilities are being served by voucher schools.
  3. Conduct outreach to parents of children with disabilities to inform them of their rights related to attending voucher schools
  4. Monitor and oversee voucher schools to ensure that they do not discriminate against children with disabilities.
  5. Provide ADA training to voucher schools; and
  6. Provide written guidance to voucher schools on ADA compliance.

Sadly, to date, well over a month after the DOJ issued its directives, DPI has done absolutely nothing to comply with these directives.  In fact, rather than decry disability discrimination by voucher schools, and pledge to eliminate it, DPI has repeatedly stated that it is reviewing the directives which are now more than a month old, and wrongly believes it needs more legal authority to enforce them.

DPI’s response demonstrates that it simply cannot be counted on to defend the civil rights of children with disabilities.  It is a mystery why DPI has failed in its legal obligation to enforce the ADA ever since that law went into effect over 20 years ago, while children with disabilities suffer rampant discrimination at the hands of voucher schools.  But even more shocking is DPI’s reticence to follow DOJ’s directives.

In my nearly 2 decades of advocating to protect the civil rights of children with disabilities in school, my observation has always been that DPI considers schools as its clients or customers.  This DOJ directive gives DPI the opportunity to change that paradigm and understand that its true mission should be consider Wisconsin’s students as its customers.

As Rabbi Hillel and Martin Luther King, Jr. made clear, there is no higher calling than defending civil rights.  Now is the time for DPI to take on that mantle and defend the civil rights of children with disabilities.


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


The Fallacy in Government Budgeting

For many years, advocates of streamlining government have suggested that government should operate like a business, using phrases like “government should not spend money that it does not have.”  While such phrases may sound appealing, these same business oriented advocates tend to pick and choose which parts of government they think should operate like a business to suit their policy goals, instead of actually applying sound business principles to all aspects of government.

At the state level, the most obvious example of the diametrically opposed methods of budgeting is how most states budget for roads versus how they budget for schools. Not only do most states budget as much road money as road builders request for both new projects and repairs, but specific projects are then put out to bid and states award the contracts based on the amount the road builders claim it will cost to perform the work requested.  This is how business typically works.  A business wants to buy a product or service.  It examines the cost, determines if it has the money, and pays the required cost if it has the money.  Some are so concerned about keeping road money sacrosanct that in Wisconsin, they are moving closer to a Constitutional Amendment to preserve the Transportation Fund from being used for anything other than transportation projects.

When budgeting for education, on the other hand, absolutely no serious consideration is given to how much it costs to educate children properly.  Rather, a pure political decision is made about how much money government is willing to spend on educating children, and then school districts are told to produce high achieving students without any consideration about whether the funding is sufficient to accomplish the desired goal.

Tonight, Governor Walker will announce a biennial budget proposal that calls for vastly increased per pupil funding for children in voucher schools vs. public schools.

The governor’s proposed budget would increase state aid to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade voucher schools in the 2014-’15 school year to $7,050 per pupil from $6,442, an increase of $608 per pupil, or 9.4%…Walker is also rejecting an increase in the state-imposed cap in revenues that public schools are allowed to raise from both the state and local property-tax payers. Before Walker’s tenure, the cap had gone up around $200-plus most years. Two years ago, Walker cut the cap by 5.5%, or about $550 per student.

Leaving aside the issue of the lack of any documented improved educational performance in voucher schools, the budgeting question is this: why is there a complete lack of budgeting analysis about how much it costs to achieve the clearly identified state and federal education standards that are written into law?

There is a method for doing this kind of education budgeting.  It is called, “Adequacy.”  The Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools (WAES) started promoting adequacy funding as far back as 2003.  However, even WAES stopped promoting it as it has failed to gain political traction.  In many states, the failure to adequately budget for successful educational outcomes has resulted in litigation, which has had mixed results.

An additional disparity between business based budgeting and both school and human services budgeting is that business would never appropriately refuse to raise revenue.  No business can survive without bringing in revenue.  Yet, ever since the Reagan taxpayer revolution, those who want to reduce spending on education and human services believe it appropriate to take the government revenue side of the equation off the table.  They should be challenged on business grounds, i.e., if they were running a business would they take revenue off the table?

Ultimately, whether in business or in government, if you want a good product that produces a good result, you have to pay an appropriate price for it.  If that means raising revenue, then raise it in a responsible manner as I described in my prior tax reform blog posts:

It is time to have honest business like budgeting when educating our children instead of using them as political pawns.


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

How Systems Change Happens

Having created progressive systems change in a variety of public policy arenas for over 27 years, many have asked me how I do it.  There is no formula for achieving systems change.  But my experience tells me that effective progressive  systems change only happens if the following elements are present:

  • Have the truth on your side.  That requires assembling data and stories that back your cause.  We did this in the 12 year campaign to pass a law prohibiting the inappropriate use of seclusion and restraint on children in Wisconsin’s public schools.
  • Educate those who need the change, the media, and those who are the decision makers required to make the change.  We accomplished this in 2011 by killing the Special Needs Voucher bill in Wisconsin despite a massive lobbying effort by the American Federation for Children (otherwise known as the lobbying arm of US Private Schools).
  • Organize supporters (or opponents, depending on the issue).  Especially when confronting powerful special interests, those seeking progressive systems change must have as many organized allies as possible.  Convincing the Wisconsin legislature to add key special education provisions to last term’s Read to Lead legislation required great organization amongst progressive reading and disability groups.
  • Litigate when necessary.  The courts are the oft forgotten branch of systems change.  Though years of unhelpful decisions often make systems change difficult in the courts, it still happens.  Our class action settlement with the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI), in our case against Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), created systems change in both of those massive bureaucracies.
  • Be Persistent.  Systems change is not for faint of heart.  Nor is it for those who are not willing and able to work hard for many years.  But remember, lack of persistence allows the other side to rule the day.  It took us 10 years to get a hearing on our seclusion and restraint bill, and 12 years to pass it.  We could have quit at any time before that and Wisconsin would continue not to have this important legislation.
  • Use all the tools above, but use them strategically and effectively.  Those who want to fight powerful, well-financed special interests, must be willing and able to use the truth, educate all concerned, organize well, litigate enough of the right cases, and be persistent.  Moreover, they must do so strategically and effectively.  Unprepared, ill-equipped advocates may cause more harm than good while fighting for a righteous cause.  Getting Gov. Walker’s signature on our seclusion and restraint legislation required using all of these tools including strong media work and publishing Out of Darkness…Into the Light. 

Many despair of the never ending legitimately awful things monied interests have foisted on the public.  But there is nothing new about the rich and powerful exerting their will on those less wealthy and powerful than them.  The challenge for those of us who want the world to be a better place is to apply these systems change principles consistently to push back on the never ending power grab by the select few.

 


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

Educational Accountability–Doing it Right

When it comes to accountability for our children’s education the battle lines are drawn.  On one side are those who believe that annual point in time testing answers all the questions about how much students are learning, and accordingly, how well their schools are performing.  This movement was at its height with the passage of the almost universally reviled No Child Left Behind Act.  Though its harshest measures have been waived by the US Dept. of Education in a majority of states, those waivers continue to insist on using annual point in time testing to measure accountability, though thankfully, other measures, such as graduation rates, are now added to the mix.

On the other side are those who believe that standardized testing is a sham and should never be used to measure either student performance or consequently school performance.  Indeed, some are now calling for a moratorium on such testing.

As usual, both sides have their faults.  Those who favor standardized testing insist that if we do not have a standard way to measure student performance, then we will never really know how to compare students, schools and school districts in terms of how well their doing.  They have a point.  Without standardized testing, for example, we would not have the evidence that our nation’s largest private school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), performs no better than its public school counterpart (MPS), and arguably worse, since those same standardized tests finally required collection of disability data, demonstrating that MPCP schools discriminate against students with disabilities by barely serving any of them, leaving a disproportionate number of those harder to serve students in MPS. The disability discrimination complaint I filed with the ACLU against the MPCP on this issue is still pending with the US Dept. of Justice.

Those that oppose standardized testing rightly point out that many of the tests are flawed, some racially biased or not suited to English Language Learners (ELLs) or students with disabilities.  They also correctly point out that many aspects of a student’s education cannot be measured by a single test, the most obvious example being behavior.  In addition, they have a good point in saying that blaming an individual teacher for how their students perform on a single test makes no sense when one examines all the other factors that likely affect the students’ performance, such as health, poverty and parental engagement.

So, how do we solve this dilemma?

In the Jamie S. class action settlement, I believe we found the answer.  In that settlement, we required the following:

  • A court appointed Independent Expert approved a high quality reading and math curriculum.  After all, it is simply unfair to measure students’ performance and blame teachers if the students perform poorly, if the tools the teachers are given by the school district are not rigorous and appropriate.
  • Over an 8 year period, starting with elementary schools, and moving up to middle schools, then high schools, all children would be REGULARLY assessed for performance in reading, math and behavior.  The Independent Expert would help build and ultimately approve data systems to monitor these assessments.
  • Any MPS student falling falling behind in reading, math, and/or behavior would receive Early Intervening Services (EIS) to address the student’s problems. While this could include a special education evaluation, that would only happen if EIS failed to resolve the student’s problem and/or there was evidence of a disability.

After 4 years of implementation, this settlement was showing signs of turning MPS around.  Sadly, MPS appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and had the settlement thrown out when the court decertified the class.  After that unfortunate decision, both MPS and the Wisconsin Dept. of Public Instruction (DPI) abandoned the settlement.  Ironically, no part of MPS’ legal challenge ever questioned the educational validity of this accountability system.  Thus, education advocates who really care about improving students’ education should push for adoption of an accountability plan on the Jamie S. settlement model without waiting for a class action to force school districts and states to do so.


For more information e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.