If we had a similar pattern of exclusion of kids by gender or race, there would be much more outrage than there is, said Harvard University Professor Thomas Hehir, who headed the federal Department of Educations office of special education under President Bill Clinton.
Hehir and others say it comes down to money.
There is a disincentive [for charter schools] to enroll these kids because they cost more money to educate, Hehir said.
The money issue
Florida has five different levels of school funding for children with special needs, depending on the needs and the childs age. Students with profound disabilities can receive more than five times more money from the state than other students, whether at a traditional public school or a charter school. Still, the bump in money usually isnt enough to cover the costs of educating a child with the most profound special needs.
The Miami-Dade school system says it spends about $64 million annually to educate its more than 2,000 students with high-level disabilities in traditional public schools. Thats about $27 million more than the district receives from the state.
Scores of traditional public schools in Miami-Dade have specialized programs for students with disabilities; one in three have programs for children with emotional or behavioral disabilities.
Charter schools, which generally enroll fewer children, dont have the advantage of scale.
The cost of educating children with special needs was so high that the Sandor Wiener Opportunity Schools, two Miami-Dade charter schools that served children with profound disabilities, opted to become private schools earlier this year. The South Florida Autism Charter School, which enrolls about 100 students, has had to rely on private fundraising and charitable gifts, school officials said.
Connie Crawford-Rodriguez, the principal at River Cities Community Charter School in Allapattah, said her school has accepted some students with disabilities. But there are some special education services the fledgling school simply cant afford, she said.
Sometimes we have to sit down with the parents and say, Listen, these are the realities of the situation. These are the services we can provide your child. But there are some services we cant provide. Its a hard conversation to have, she said.
Saunders, the principal at Bridgepoint, said she, too, is upfront with parents.
Ive said, This will not be the best place for your child. A school with 300 kids is not going to generate enough money to have those kinds of programs.
Few parents put up a fight.
Its exhausting to raise a child and even more exhausting to raise a child with intense support needs, said Helene Good, president and CEO of the CCDH, formerly the Community Committee for Developmental Handicaps. You can only fight so much.
Hehir, the Harvard professor, said schools that dont provide the services are in the wrong.
If [children] have to go somewhere else to get services required by law, thats problematic, he said.
There are, however, some contradictions in the law:
For each child receiving special education services, teachers, specialists and parents come together to craft whats known as an Individualized Education Plan. The plan is legally binding. Often, the teams will recommend traditional public schools that have established programs for kids with special needs, rather than charter schools, which frequently do not.