Belkys Vigil thought the Bridgepoint Academy charter school would be a good fit for her son David, an energetic kindergartner with autism.
School administrators thought differently.
During a tour of Bridgepoint, Vigil was told the school had no specialist for children with disabilities, nor could it provide the special education services to which David is legally entitled.
Vigil then called Somerset Academy, another charter school in Southwest Miami-Dade. But an employee there told her that the school didn’t have the resources her son would need, she said.
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“I would cry because it was constant rejection,” Vigil said. “Nobody wanted to take my son.”
From South Dade to the northern reaches of Broward County, only a handful of students with profound disabilities make it into charter schools, according to a Miami Herald/StateImpact Florida analysis of student enrollment data. The trend holds true across the state, where 87 percent of charter schools don’t serve any students with the most intense support needs.
Charter school operators say the students are often better off in private or district-run schools that have special education expertise. Though Somerset says it encourages all students to apply — and that whoever answered Vigil’s call must have misspoken — Bridgepoint Principal Maria Saunders said her small charter school does not have the capacity to serve children with severe autism.
“Charter schools do not have the infrastructure and economies of scale to provide special programs to meet the needs of those children,” said Michael Kooi, director of school choice programs at the Florida Department of Education.
Still, the trend is troubling to advocates of children with disabilities, who say charter schools are legally obligated to admit and educate students with the most intense support needs. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, and must abide by anti-discrimination laws and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. State law also says that students with disabilities shall have an “equal opportunity of being selected for enrollment” in a charter school.
“Charter schools were supposed to provide a choice for parents,” said Isabel Garcia, executive director of Parent to Parent of Miami, a nonprofit organization that provides support to families with special needs children. “Unfortunately, charter schools are not a choice option for children with disabilities.”
When it comes to children with less acute disabilities such as learning disorders, South Florida charter schools enroll numbers proportionate to the local school districts.
Yet in Miami-Dade, only two out of 109 charter schools serve children with more profound disabilities like autism and cerebral palsy. One is a specialized school for children with developmental delays, the other for children with autism.
In Miami-Dade’s traditional public school system, 59 percent of schools serve students with the most intensive support needs, records show.
In Broward County, 9 percent of charter schools enroll students with the greatest support needs, compared with 80 percent of traditional public schools, according to a school district enrollment analysis.
The trend has also been observed in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, where the few children with intense support needs who are in charter schools are clustered in schools that specialize in their disabilities.
“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 Education’s 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 child’s 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 isn’t 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. That’s 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, don’t 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 can’t 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 can’t provide.’ It’s a hard conversation to have,” she said.
Saunders, the principal at Bridgepoint, said she, too, is upfront with parents.
“I’ve 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.
“It’s 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 don’t provide the services are in the wrong.
“If [children] have to go somewhere else to get services required by law, that’s 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 what’s 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.
“It’s all about the needs of that child and where that child can get their needs best met,” said Vickie Marble, who sits on the board of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.
Fernando Zulueta, whose firm, Academica, manages more than 60 charter schools in South Florida, said any employee who denied access to a student with disabilities would be fired. He said special needs students rarely apply to Academica-managed schools because they are better served at private schools that take McKay scholarships, state funding that helps children with disabilities attend private schools.
“We want to serve them,” he said. “We haven’t gotten there yet.”
The process can be frustrating for parents.
Vigil ultimately chose a private school called Learning Links for her son David. Although the boy receives a McKay Scholarship, tuition still costs the family about $7,000 annually, she said.
Yanely Hernandez had a similar experience with Doral Academy Charter School, where she said her two children were denied enrollment because of their Individualized Education Plans. “My kids have never been picked and that is discrimination,” Hernandez wrote in a complaint letter to the school district.
Zulueta, whose company also manages the Doral Academy schools, denied the allegations.
Some experts are calling for more self-regulating — and for the local school districts to play a bigger role in monitoring enrollment numbers.Lynn Norman-Teck, a spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said more schools serving children with disabilities may be coming soon.
“As we move into the next phase of charter schools, I imagine that children with disabilities will be next,” she said. “That is a natural progression for charter schools.”
StateImpact Florida reporters Sarah Gonzalez and John O’Connor contributed to this report.