It’s enough that they face enormous challenges, including blindness, dyslexia and severe emotional disorders. Now, the more than 350 special-needs children at Options Public Charter School must suffer cavalier charter officials who apparently have little regard for their academic futures.
Problems for the students intensified in October when D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan filed a civil lawsuit against several of Options’s managers and a former board member; the managers were accused of diverting millions of dollars from the school to two for-profit companies they owned and operated.
Protecting the public’s money is important. Wisely, Nathan worked with the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) prior to filing the lawsuit and requested that the court appoint a receiver to ensure “the best interests of the school would be protected.”
By contrast, the PCSB’s actions have been unconscionable. As if dealing with widgets — not some of the city’s most vulnerable children — the board quickly voted to close the school; under pressure, closure was delayed until next year.
Scott Pearson, the PCSB’s executive director, said in a written statement to me this week that Options students “are our top concern.” He said that “no final [closing] decision” has been made and the board is working “to find a solution which is best for the students, has them in the right educational environment and causes them the least disruption.”
That’s all spin. Based on testimony last week before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education and Libraries, the closing of Options is essentially a done deal. Stunningly, the charter board started the closure process before the court receiver had finalized his evaluation of conditions at the school. Before there was an analysis of each student’s educational needs. Even before the board knew a “definitive” number of children considered most severe, or Level 4.
That’s making children a top priority, right?
Pearson told the council that the PCSB’s hands were tied. The School Reform Act mandates revocation, he argued, when there is a “pattern of financial mismanagement.” But the law doesn’t provide a specific timetable. In fact, the board could secure a new operator or assume direct control of the school. It apparently is happy strapping D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) with responsibility for the students.
Nathaniel Beers, DCPS’s head of special education, made clear, however, that “if [Options] closed tomorrow and all the kids came to DCPS, we would have a crisis in our neighborhood schools.” So, as committee Chairman David Catania (I-At Large) noted, “The only individuals suffering are the students.”
What’s new? In the public-education pecking order, children with special needs frequently get short shrift, forced to fight government officials, often in court, for every resource and every small advantage.
“We’re not doing a great job with our special education kids, generally,” Catania told me days after his meeting. He has been working with Judith Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center to develop a plan to improve the system. Catania expects to introduce legislation in February that could incorporate some of Sandalow’s recommendations.
“Options wasn’t particularly good. We had concerns before this. [Still,] we need to step in quickly and figure out a solution,” Sandalow told me. She praised the city for improving services to younger children. But, she said, it hasn’t done as well with older students, particularly those with severe emotional issues, like many of the teens at Options.
“A lot of our kids have been traumatized at home or in their community,” Sandalow added. “The city needs a good mental health system to reduce the number of kids who need high-end services.”
The PCSB’s willingness to toss aside Options students, like a worn winter coat, is appalling — but typical. This year, it’s expected to close two other schools, including the Arts and Technology Academy in Northeast, where more than 600 students are enrolled.
Is the PCSB dumping children to improve its schools’ ratings? In 2013, Stanford University researchers found, “The charter sector [nationwide] is getting better on average not because existing schools are getting dramatically better. It is largely driven by the closure of schools.” The District has closed 35 charter schools since 1996.
Interestingly, the PCSB voted in 2011 to extend Options’s charter. But Pearson told the council last week he thought that review wasn’t “thorough.” Is the lawsuit his opportunity for a do-over?
The malfeasance described at Options was allegedly made possible, in part, by the PCSB’s finance officer, who is a named co-conspirator in the lawsuit. But that possible organizational culpability hasn’t inspired the PCSB to do right thing.
The D.C. Council should step in: It should amend the School Reform Act to require the PCSB to identify appropriate alternative placements within its sector for every student affected by closures — just as DCPS does when it closes a facility.
Of course bad schools need to be closed. But the current process doesn’t work. It allows the charter board to abandon the city’s children with impunity.