It’s one of the oldest tricks in the political playbook: identify something you’re guilty of and then shout from the hilltops that someone else is a bigger offender and must be stopped. This is exactly what the teachers unions and a cadre of their front groups do to charter schools year-after-year—most notably on the issue of children with special needs and English-language learners. But just last week, the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) released a damning report showing that
more than 60,000 special needs kids in city schools are not receiving all of the services they need and are entitled to under law. Let the number sink in—60,000 kids.
And 5 percent of the city’s special needs kids are receiving none of the services they need—that’s more than 8,500 kids. This denial of services hurts low-income children of color more than anyone else. And in a year when the United Federation of Teachers is making its “top legislative priority”
a bill that would impose sanctions on charters that do not educate the same proportions of special needs kids compared to district averages (even though many district schools don’t meet these same standards), one might expect the union would have something to say about the disturbing findings in this report. But they haven’t said a word. Many charter schools actually do a better job educating high-needs students, despite what you’ll hear from detractors. The Manhattan Institute has determined through rigorous analysis of charter school enrollment data that
students with disabilities are more likely to remain in a charter school. But you won’t hear the unions acknowledge that. The hypocrisy is stunning. Indeed a hot topic this year has been the spotlight on the severe economic and racial segregation within New York City Public Schools (NYCPS). And let’s not forget the long history of isolation students with disabilities face in the NYC school system, most recently pointed out by the state at the pre-kindergarten level. But the unions will never talk about the numerous lawsuits against the NYC DOE for this practice. What we’re seeing is a living example of the old admonition to remove the plank from your own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s. The “planks,” as it were, are numerous in the “regular” public school system:
New York City was caught systematically segregating children with disabilities from their non-disabled classmates—in essence, “warehousing” them. Late last year, state education officials found that nearly 47 percent of NYC preschoolers with special needs were put in classes exclusively with other special needs students during the previous school year—the highest rate in the entire state.
In October, a former teacher at a Queens, New York district school said his former school was guilty of numerous abuses, including locking special needs students in an isolation room. The teacher reported that students were restrained or put into isolation without their parents being notified or incident reports being filed—an illegal practice.
But wait, there’s more. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has sued the Utica City School District for
systematically excluding refugee children, most of whom we can safely assume speak limited or no English. Last year, similar conduct was found in some Long Island districts to keep children from war-torn Central America out of their schools. One plaintiff in the Utica case is 18-year-old Patrick Tuyizere. Born in a refugee camp in Rwanda, his family made their way to Baltimore where Mr. Tuyizere attended a public high school. But when his family moved to Utica,
it’s alleged that officials placed him in a GED program, not a high school. After the life he’s lived it’s unconscionable that he was shuffled away, forgotten and denied the education he is entitled to under law. And let’s not forget East Ramapo,
where the elected school board has been accused of diverting resources to the 24,000 students in private Yeshivas at the expense of the 9,000 predominantly low-income students of color who remain in the district schools. The state appointed the respected Dennis Walcott as monitor. Meanwhile, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has declared neutrality in the matter.
Fighting For Students That Need It Most
As a civil rights attorney I’ve seen this kind of ugly discrimination up close. For nearly six years I represented low-income families at a legal aid office. My work included fighting for special education students in district schools to get the services they’re entitled to, opening the school-house door for homeless students and teaching parents about their legal rights. I got into charter school advocacy when I saw how these schools of choice were changing the lives of students who many districts had given up on. I saw special education students declassified and sent on a path to college. I saw English-language learner students mastering English instead of being warehoused. I saw homeless families welcomed with open arms. Are these schools flawless? Of course not. But I saw charter schools dedicating themselves to changing the lives of children and I wanted to help them do more of that. Indeed, there are shining examples of charter schools doing tremendous work for high-needs students in our home state of New York. At
West Buffalo Charter School, one-quarter of the students are English-language learners, and 18 percent are special education—and they’re outperforming the district by double-digit margins in math and English language arts. And at
Grand Concourse Academy Charter School in the Bronx, 20 percent of the students are English-language learners and 92 percent are poor. In spite of these challenges, the school absolutely trounces the district average with their test scores. There are many more schools doing great work—from New York City to Buffalo. And there are certainly some charters that should do more to recruit high-needs students, and in those instances the charter authorizers take appropriate actions to right the course. But union bosses continue to attack charters and remain neutral on the bad behaviors of some districts. That’s because charters distract from the massive problems that no one wants to solve as long as the dues keep rolling in. Charter schools are competition, and parents choose charters in droves when given the opportunity.
Charters show that children—including poor and underfunded urban kids—can learn as well as their suburban counterparts. All of this makes teachers unions terribly uncomfortable. So the unions spend millions of dollars every year to smear our schools, latch on to controversy and dismiss any shred of success our schools have—as well as the children and families who love them. Recent news reports document that
NYSUT spent a hefty $14.4 million on political and lobbying activities during the 12-month period ending in August, on top of $9.2 million spent the year before. A spokesman had the unmitigated chutzpah to call it “an investment in our legislative and political power.” Yikes.
Kyle Rosenkrans is CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which advocates for charter schools in New York and Connecticut, and was former civil rights attorney who has represented hundreds of parents and children in matters involving special education and disability law.