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.”