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Parents Say Top-Ranked Charter School Neglects Special Ed

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BASIS San Antonio's campus

Since the Arizona-based charter network BASIS Schools opened its first school in 1998, the chain has built a reputation as one of the nation’s strongest charter organizations.

Two of the chain’s original schools, in Scottsdale and Tucson, ranked in the top five of U.S. News & World Report‘s latest high school rankings. In 2012, both schools boasted that 100 percent of their students graduated and went on to college. At BASIS Scottsdale, students earned an average of 4.1 out of a possible 5 points on AP tests.

But at the chain’s new Texas outpost, one parent says BASIS has failed to address her child’s special needs, in violation of federal law. Her claim has reignited an old charge against charters that outperform traditional school districts—that they keep scores high by gradually pushing out students who can’t keep up.

In June, BASIS San Antonio parent Sharon Bonilla accused the school of failing to accommodate her child’s ADHD and using bully tactics to push him out of the classroom. She leveled the accusation in a letter published on Cloaking Inequity, a blog written by University of Texas researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig.

As a parent, I was “wooed” by Basis. We were sure that Basis was the “one” for us – the school that would accept all children regardless of color, creed, or impairment. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this charter school initially? Who would have thought our year would end with a hearing, and a desperate search for legal counsel?


Much to my surprise, drawing up a 504 Accommodation Plan was the extent of the service we got from Basis. There were no plans implemented or followed up on throughout the fall months. The spring was no different. The evidence first came when I saw my child’s failing grades. Basis ignored my steady emails day after day, and week after week. With every failing quiz, test, and progress report, I sent my concerns to the Special Education Director, Head of School, and teachers, which were met with no reply, dismissive attitude, or disciplinary action against my child. It was clear that the honeymoon was over.

Bonilla also happens to be a social worker at San Antonio ISD. She told the Observer that after five months of trying to contact BASIS staff about her child’s special accommodations—under federal law, schools must create what’s known as a “504 plan” to meet the needs of students with disabilities—Bonilla learned that the plan had never been implemented and that her child would be held back a grade.

“It feels like an injustice,” she said. “I did everything I could to get in touch with BASIS staff.”

After she was excluded from decisions about her child’s accommodations, Bonilla said, BASIS’s head of schools tried to counsel her out of sending her child to the school next year.

“She said, ‘Your [child] isn’t doing well here. Why do you want him here anyway?” Bonilla said.

At a formal hearing next Tuesday, Bonilla will plead in front of an arbitrator, hired by BASIS, to move her child to the next grade and restore her rights as decision maker in her child’s education. With help from lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte, Bonilla wrote, she also filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency. In the letter posted at Cloaking Inequity, Bonilla summed up her frustration:

Are the events of this year tactics Basis San Antonio practices to scare away children who do not meet their academic standards? Other Basis parents who did not feel supported transferred out earlier this year, should we have moved too? My child was emotionally tormented and struggled entire school year trying to maneuver through the Basis curriculum without his 504 accommodations. … How can a “world class” publically [sic] funded, educational institution be permitted to ignore the needs of their disabled students and their parent’s constant cries for help?

BASIS Communications Director Phil Handler declined to speak specifically about Bonilla’s case, but denied that the school pushes out students with disabilities or lacks the resources to serve them. “We’re a public charter. Anyone who wants to come to our school is welcome,” Handler said.

All schools that receive public funding are required by federal law to offer services for students with special needs. But accusations that BASIS and other charter schools try to wiggle out of offering these services are hardly new.

Educating students with disabilities takes time, money and specially-trained staff—and since the state grades schools by their students’ standardized tests, critics say charters have an incentive to spend more on the students most likely to score high. Traditional public schools still have to educate the rest.

That logic might explain the findings from a 2012 Government Accountability Office report on enrollment in charter schools. The report found that disabled students represented only 8.2 per cent of students enrolled at charters across the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 11.2 percent in traditional public schools. The number suggests a systemic trend that runs deeper than BASIS.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened a federal investigation into a parent’s complaint that BASIS D.C. discriminated against students with disabilities after the school had been open for just one year. The D.C. Public Charter School Board also conducted a two-day review of the school’s special education program, which found that the school’s services were insufficient. The local board required BASIS to make improvements the following year—but only after 44 of its 443 students, half of them with disabilities, had already dropped out.

Amy Silverman, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, called this trend a new kind of segregation in a Phoenix New Times story earlier this year. Silverman described her desperate search to find a charter middle school for her daughter in Arizona, a state with over 500 charter schools. In a number of conversations with special education teachers at charter schools, Silverman says she was told she’d be better off enrolling her daughter in a traditional school. Silverman claims in the article that even Great Hearts Academies founder Jay Heiler, who she describes as the “godfather of the school choice movement,” dissuaded her from trying to enroll her daughter at a charter. (Great Hearts, like BASIS, is another ambitious charter chain expanding into Texas.) By refusing to address their own lack of special education resources and pushing away students with special needs, Silverman argues, charters are becoming increasingly exclusive.

Heather Cole, a graduate student in special education at the University of Texas and a former education advocate at Disability Rights Texas, said charters make less of an effort to tailor their programs to special education students than traditional schools. Cole told the Observer that funding for special education is an issue both in public schools and charters, but that charter school teachers frequently lack the instructional training to accommodate students with special education needs.

“It’s almost a given that [students with special needs] might be excluded,” Cole said. The danger, she suggests, is that parents seeking schools for their children will eventually get the idea that charters just aren’t an option, without any school ever telling them directly.

Denise Pierce, an attorney at the Texas Charter Schools Association said that all charters should strive to provide the same quality of special education as traditional schools. “Charter schools, just like districts, are required to provide a free and appropriate education to students with special needs,” she said. “Charter schools and school districts alike are always challenged to bring to the appropriate needs to every child, because every child is an individual.”

Pierce said that charters with tight finances could try sharing special education teachers with other schools. But pushing students with disabilities out of school is never the answer.

Still, a case like Bonilla’s—where even a social worker familiar with the education system finds her child cut off from those services—suggests charter schools still have a long way to go.

“Charters are supposed to be the solution to this big system that didn’t work. ‘We’re smaller. We’re tighter. We’ll be responsive to your needs,’” Cole said. “That is not the case. We’re seeing greater exclusion. We’re seeing more of the tracking of kids into alternative educations and juvenile justice programs. They are not the panacea that people hoped.”

  • 1bimbo

    an effective private charter school specializes in regular education – not special education – in answer to public schools either dumbing down education for the collective, accepting lower-skilled teachers and/or runaway disciplinary issues.. i foresee a time when public schools will become primarily special needs education, ESL, alternative curricula.. and charter schools will be comprised primarily of higher achieving academically-superior students

    • I Am Me

      Then you agree that these schools should be allowed to break Free Appropriate Public Education FAPE, laws meant to provide education to all school children. That is sort of silly and backwards. That like saying because your black, white, Christian or Muslim that segregation is now, Ok because it benefits you and your family. 1bimbo is correct!

    • I Am Me

      If public school and special education were fully funded like they should be, we would not need college prep charters schools to violate FAPE laws. I have a new term for people who see things the way you are looking at them… “Edu-bigots.”
      Also, be aware special education students as a whole are not the problem. Poverty and a lack of perceiving education as a valuable resource is the problem. This is and always will be the problem. Charters unrestrained actually grow this problem too, unless they are targeting for a specific outcome in an underserved community.

      • 1bimbo

        ‘edu-bigots’?… that’s real cute.. didn’t you learn anything from last night’s donkey party shellackapocalypse? the ‘bigot’ narrative rings false and does nothing more than energizes all us liberty lovin’, small government-demandin’, gun-totin’, bible-grippin’ americans… better come up with a better ‘attack’ line against GOP policy or you’re in for a long bitter ride for the next 10 years

  • My opinion

    Charter schools are supposed to be capable of providing all of the educational services of a public school, but sometimes utilizing alternative approaches. Basis DC is a failure. All special education students have left because they were piled into one classroom and kept their all school year. Way to go, Basis DC. They treat minority students horrible. I do mean horrible. There is a huge gap in culture and cultural treatment, as such student moral among minority families is not the best. Many leave by year two and certainly year three. School officials have made conscious efforts to actually push these children out of the school, so imagine how they treat students with special needs. Basis should truly gut it’s administration and start over! Start with the history teach rehired after feeling up a 5th grader; escalate to the new principle that retaliates against children that complain by holding them back a grade level and is narcissistic; and continue to the internal standardized test, called the Comp, which made 90% of African Americans in the 6th grade ineligible for promotion. 14+ were held back at the new principles discretion. The more students a school has the more money it has, yes! NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND, MY BEHIND! How about, NEW AGE JIM CROW!

  • alieye

    As a parent of a Basis DC student, I wonder how My opinion reached the conclusion that the school is a failure. My daughter just started her third year and loves it. Given that the student body is almost entirely “minority”, the charge that minority families are treated horribly is interesting, and btw, my daughter is a “minority.” The charge that a history teacher was rehired after “feeling up” a 5th grader is unsubstantiated, in fact, given how fast rumors fly in that school, I’m sure it would have come home via my student, and I never heard it. The school does not socially promote and holds students to a very high standard. It expects a lot and usually gets a lot from its students. Its had some kinks to work out in its first years, but ask most of its students and families, and you’ll find lots of satisfied kids and parents. We’ll be there thru high school. We couldn’t be happier and my younger one will follow if I decide it’s the right fit for her. Because after all, it’s not the right fit for every child.

    • I Am Me

      Then you agree that these schools should be allowed to break Free Appropriate Public Education FAPE, laws meant to provide education to all school children. That is sort of silly and backwards. That like saying because your black, white, Christian or Muslim that segregation is now, Ok because it benefits you and your family? How is that fair to special needs parents and their families?

      • alieye

        I have no idea how you could read that into what I said. You are obviously seeing only what you want to see. You have obviously never visited Basis DC. My daughter and her friends love the school and their teachers, which is a pretty good measure of the school’s success. I have no doubt the school had issues, like many new projects of such size. They took on a very large project, and no one of sound mind would have expected things to go perfectly in the first two years. But in the first few months of the third year, I think most students and parents would agree that Basis DC is a great school. I read a lot of rumors, but I work 2 blocks from the school and spend a lot of time there. It’s not perfect, what is? But it’s a darn good school, it’s giving children in DC access to an excellent education and an opportunity that they would not otherwise have. My daughter has been in several schools in DC and I have another child in a different school. So I have a lot to compare. We are lucky to have been given this opportunity. So I say, get off the blog, quit complaining, stop looking for problems that don’t exist and get out and do something.

  • I Am Me

    It is not fair that parents of special needs children especially those with low incident needs, are not allowed quality special education choice. SpEd is only funded at 25% and most of that goes towards administrative fees and cost. Inclusion services that is provided with minimal special education teacher support is really just main-streaming with the appearance of providing special education. It is even being done for low incident student with intellectual disabilities and children who are mild moderate autistic. If they don’t distract too much they are allowed to waste their days getting exposure ( not mastery) to regular academics. Special education children less and less are receiving quality in their instructional programs as they are pulled out very little to address their needs. Parents are usually misled through school about what is possible, and the districts/ schools appeal to parents desire for inclusiveness over costly therapies, and instructional educational services to save money.

    Free Appropriate Public Education is also being used to set a lower standard for services and of coarse charters are not being made to tow the line regarding FAPE. This is a direct civil rights violation that few parents have the financial means to fight. So basically special education is being turned into a baby sitting service. Again, not fair parents never planned on having a child with special needs child or one damaged by environmental factors (autism). They shouldn’t be punished with children that now when is gown up is even less able to hold a job, address basic care and needs themselves, and advocate for themselves, due to the lack of education they received when they were young. It is the same as sending a regular Ed child to kinder garden/ school only for them never to be able to achieve or go to college, because the school decided early on that they wouldn’t achieve that much anyways so, to humor the parent we will make them feel good and allow their child to go to school anyways. After all it is only the law and we have to save money for children with the most potential. This is cruel because unlike the regular Ed child who will grow up and is expected to have a life of there own, the special child will not. This child will forever be the responsibility of his parents and family for the rest of their lives. That means that a special needs child that never master potty training due to lack of school personnel willing or able to put in the time and effort to follow through on hygiene plans; attunds to parents having an adult/ child that will forever need their care to function. I highly doubt any regular education parent is prepared or wants to support their children for the rest of there lives and assure for there safety as well. There is a lot that can be done to help low incident need children and higher functioning special education student , but the rug is being pulled out underneath them.

    Furthermore with the children leaving to go to charter school they take with them funds that would have gone partly to intervention programs that would have benefitted both regular and special education students. For profit charters are not reinvesting these fund in children , but rather in profits for CEO. Charters end up hurting all children both public and private. It sickening the funds that are being lost. Charters buy land , are provided grants for buildings and materials that will never be returned to the public educational system. That means one a charter schools fails or is forced out of an area, the land and building is remodeled and is either leased out or sold and still provides profits to corporate interest.

    Do not think one moment that these corporate charters are concerned about providing the best education; they are not. They want to spend a little as possible on each student while maintain adequate scares. A few flag ship sure, that is smart for advertising , but over all these schools use parental ignorance in PTA programs to inflate what they are doing for students. Parent need to realize that they have no tangible input into curriculum or how the school is run because charters have no school board. Strangle that conservative would scream for school choice and then pick schools were no choice is given to the parents in which they serve.

    Furthermore, charters clearly are not being held to the same standards, and fraud is rampant. We now have enough data to show, that state standardized scores are being doctored in order to keep charters up and running. Charter school student’s are not out performing public school student of SAT’s. In fact many are doing poorer then they would have otherwise been expected to perform. So charters turn out to be the feel good centers of education without the substance for students to create the most successful future the charter advertised the student would have. Few charter schools deliver and it is my feeling that charters should be non profit , receive less funding for running a charter in order to receive special priviledges in excluding and frustrating parent from their facilities. If we continue for profit charters, the tax payer needs to be able to recoup cost made in the investments as well as profit too. For profit charters should have to forfeit or split the cost of a charter school property and the buildings on it with local school districts, once they close down. They also must maintain quality special education programs from a variety of diverse learners and disabilities at least at a consolidated campus to address student with low incident needs. They also must produce proof that they are requirting such student just as vigorously as the regular educational student. type campus site among a set number of campuses in a given area. If they cannot supply a quality special education program to meet all student needs then they must forgo cuts to each regular education child’s education. The skimmed off amounts would then be diverted back to public schools that are supplying the special education program. Special education services and funding is still an issue that needs to be address, but at least school district and charters will no longer have the excuse to not providing adequate services due to funding.

  • I Am Me

    I too have personal experience with this issue and I tried to do something about it. I have written congress people and have had other people involved in government and politics just respond in such a way you would think they had crickets in their heads for brains. Republicans/ Libertarians are the worse as they really want to believe free market principal will fix everything and their will be little to any fraud as business leaders bent on making money really do care about children. Business people care so much about children they got a masters in teaching… right? … No they got MBA to learn how to exploit situation to make money.

  • I Am Me

    I too have experience as a parent in charters school, and I am a professional in the field. Being that you are in DC, I doubt that Basis like other charters opening in the area, have made DC charter schools flag ship schools for promotional and advertisement reasons, being so close to the US capital and government officials. However in over whelming cases, the students who attend charters are not doing any better then regular public schools and many times much worse. Those come from hard cold statistics that you can get from the US department of education. The disabled student particularly those with low incident needs, (autism, Intellectual disabilities) is also denied adequate school choice as well. It’s a Civil Rights issue.
    I am not saying all charters school are bad , however they need much more regulation more so then the regular public schools whose finances are transparent. Also district need to have more of a say of what kind of charters can open, for how long and for what purpose. Charters then should deliver those needs or at the very least shut down if they are not out performing the regular public school. I have a feeling though with so many politician wishing for campaign donations from charters schools , they will actively work to destroy them. Personally, I feel charter school parents sending their child to yet another college prep charter school are lazy and just want to be pleased with being left alone with learning about education, how it works, and what you can to ensure your district is meeting your communities needs. It selfishness. Charters have no school boards and cater to parents enough to keep them please and the funding rolling in. They dictate to you as a parent and your choice is take what they offer or leave. That goes against every American ideal principal of inclusiveness in providing in the greater good for your community.

  • I Am Me

    I too am a liberty- loving, Libertarian / Republican. However many Libertarians haven’t even read the web site on what we believe and lazily go by by word of mouth.

    Economic freedoms: Libertarians want all members of society to have abundant opportunities to achieve economic success. A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner. Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market. The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.

    Property and Contract

    As respect for property rights is fundamental to maintaining a free and prosperous society, it follows that the freedom to contract to obtain, retain, profit from, manage, or dispose of one’s property must also be upheld. Libertarians would free property owners from government restrictions on their rights to control and enjoy their property, as long as their choices do not harm or infringe on the rights of others.

    Libertarians support free markets. We defend the right of individuals to form corporations, cooperatives and other types of entities based on voluntary association. We oppose all forms of government subsidies and bailouts to business, labor, or any other special interest. Government should not compete with private enterprise.

    Sorry, Charters schools are more representative of Fascism rather than freedom. Funding was never paid directly to the provider by parents. The funding was collected by tax payers and then disbursed through other government pay outs to redistribute wealth so all children can benefit. Fascism favors the most economically viable. It does not protect citizens it help government. Also,parents never directly touch these funds.
    Further the parents have no direct involvement in deciding curriculum nor practices. They are at the whims of the corporations and they cater to a certain socio economical groups and races. Civil Liberties is a corner stone of the Libertarian movement. But how can you have liberty if you have instrument of power in government and corporations greater than the individual, that does not disburse its power equally of justly to member in society. You don’t … you have worthless lip service that only serve to control manipulate people ignorant to believe because they were offered a choice that somehow that translated to a fair and appropriate choice to others , as well as civil liberties ..Which it did not. So unless you are paying privately for your child’s education, what your telling me is you don’t even know what you are talking about. charters have a history of infringing on the civil Liberties of the disabled from the beginning. They don’t even have the decency to return a percentage taken for only educating the child with much less needs.

    What you don’t understand that each child is worth between say like $9,000 to $16,000 each. with a maximum of about an additional $1,200 to $5,600 per special education student. As you can see if you are familiar with medial services and educational programs, special education is severely underfunded. Most SpEd money receive goes to administrative cost, of testing , documenting and filing for services. Special education then must draw off general educational fund that are reallocated to meet students needs. So really all the money that is allocated for your child goes into a big pot for the greater whole. With that come the buying of intervention programs and staff that all students can benefit from. So when a child is pulled out and then goes to an equally achieving charter school those funds are left. The public school is left holding the bag and scrambling for how to cover the cost of providing services to needy student.
    Charters on the other hand usually pick up the average low cost child and the high functioning disabled student that doesn’t require much assistance. Therefore, because charters do not incur that expense they can claim profit to it. They can chose to reinvest, grow their own hefty salaries for corporate CEO’s or fund charitable organization over sees to set up real operating Islamic schools that may or may not be friendly to US interest.
    Yes, this is happening with one of the largest charter school systems in the US. Politician love the campaign funds and so do corporate million and billionairs. Many of the uncertified imported teachers HB-1 visa teachers barely speak English. Tech corporation want to break in on the actions and provide understandable lessons via computer to students. So online K-12 programs are becoming big , since many charters do not even hire certified teachers ( they cost too much) or get the bad ones that public kicked out or even the new and alternative certified teacher. Charters are overwhelmingly run by people who major in business and have no interest in getting a degree in educational leadership. Trying to explain to parents why the heck do you want a less certified person educating child over a person that majored in education is frustrating as the under educated enjoy quick word phrases and quips to explain every complex situation. Parents need to be aware of deceptive practices so they can make a good choices for their needy student.
    Charters rarely offer their teachers incentive pay either as it cuts into the CEO pocket/ unless of course the employee signed a deal to donate a percentage of their pay and bonus back to the charitable organization thy work for. why do you are a parent and a good citizen of the untied states tolerate this deception. Charters need to be small limited , address a particular to meet a particular goal for a certain type of student. That is what the original intention was. Also, do you know the best performing schools with the most highest achieving students and the best economies in the world are public schools? It’s true.. look it up. Libertarian types of societies are romantic such as like communism were everyone receives everything according to their needs or in libertarian circles their effort and enterprise. However, the result of both extremes can be dangerous whenever groups of peoples civil liberties and human rights are ignored in order to address selfish needs and influence those whom do not understand their own intentions for society. If your going to be a Libertarian you need to stop excepting free public education or you and others should figure out ways to address the needs of other in an a fair manner, since your are bent of violating other children civil right in educational choice. Sorry to break it to you honey , but you are not a freedom lover , you area an opportunist.

  • I Am Me

    Unlike your I will attend convention and will continue to inform the mis-informed. I will donate to campaign funds of individual candidates, and do my part as to keep the lobbyist and that corporate bribes at bay. I bleed red, except in one area and that is the defense of public education which I do not view as being un American. I am not totally anti-charter. I am pro-public pro-magnet and limited charter. I am Republican because I do feel it is important to be nationalistic and protect our borders and our national interest as others do not embrace free and equality like America embraces freedom and equality. currently I feel our Republican servants are drunk off their rockers on educational corporate donations. I ill continue to be patient and love my party, but I won’t vote for your unless you are for the people and bleed true red.