New Orleans Accused of Failing Disabled Students

Kelly Fisher holds up a photo of her special-needs son at a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in New Orleans on Sept. 14. Michael Democker / Times-Picayune-Landov

New Orleans, where more than 70 percent of public schools will be independently chartered after this school year, has been placed on a pedestal as a shining model by education reformers. The new documentary Waiting for "Superman", which hopes to serve as a call to arms for education reform, devotes a page of its Web site to touting New Orleans's new citywide school-choice system.

Charter-school advocates such as Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools (LAPCS), are boasting of the success they've had in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when much of the population of New Orleans that might have opposed those policies was displaced from the city. "I don't think we need to wait for Superman," says Shirley. "It is happening today." National media outlets have similarly gushed over New Orleans, some going so far as to suggest that Katrina saved the public-education system in the city.

But is this supposed revolution really helping the most-disadvantaged students in New Orleans, those with special needs such as physical, behavioral, or mental disabilities? In July, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a legal complaint against the Louisiana Department of Education alleging that schools have been turning away parents with disabled children and shirking their responsibilities to ensure that the special-needs students they do serve actually benefit from academic instruction. The complaint asserts that New Orleans schools are in violation of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), particularly in terms of excessive punishment of children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Katrina: Then and Now Alan Chin for

Under IDEA, all public schools must implement an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each special-needs student before taking punitive measures. However, suspension and expulsion rates of these students are shockingly high in New Orleans: overall, almost a third of the city's 4,500 special-needs students have been suspended by the Recovery School District, the entity created by the state to take over failing New Orleans schools. Specific RSD schools such as Sojourner Truth Academy and New Orleans College Prep Charter Academy have suspended more than half their disabled student populations—53.8 and 52.2 percent, respectively, according to the Louisiana Department of Education's special education Performance Profile. They are not anomalies, either. At least four other RSD charters suspend their special-needs students at three to four times the rate that their general-education students are suspended. The statewide average for suspensions of students with disabilities was 16.4 percent in the 2008-09 school year; RFD suspended 26.8 percent of its students with disabilities that year. In Baltimore, a city frequently used as a comparison with New Orleans because of its similarity in terms of student population, 13.5 percent of disabled students were suspended in the 2008–09 school year.

The data further suggest that when not suspended, disabled students aren't getting the education they deserve, either because teachers aren't working the IEPs or because they're not identifying children who may suffer from learning disabilities. Perhaps as a consequence, only 6.4 percent of students with disabilities in the Recovery School District graduated in the 2008–09 school year, while 37 percent of them performed "well below grade level" and 50 percent failed to complete school altogether. In Baltimore, public schools graduated 24.2 percent of their special-ed students with a diploma, while 33.5 percent dropped out in 2007–08. St. Louis, another city with a similar student profile, graduated 29.5 percent of its disabled population, while 31.5 percent dropped out in 2008–09.

Which raises the question: does the much-touted academic progress of New Orleans's post-Katrina charters come in part because special-needs students are being weeded out? Certainly, charters appear to be enrolling fewer than their fair share of special-needs kids. The average school in New Orleans includes a disabled-student population of about 9 percent. Overall, 7.8 percent of charter-school students are disabled. That's not significantly lower than the city average, but when you look at which individual schools have the lowest percentages of disabled students, almost all of them are charters. In fact, four of the highest-performing RSD charter schools in terms of school-performance scores have some of the lowest disabled-student enrollment figures in the city: Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science & Technology, 3.29 percent enrollment; KIPP Believe College Prep, 5.41 percent; KIPP Central City Primary, 6.67 percent; and Martin Behrman Elementary School, 7.31 percent.

RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, who led school-choice systems in Chicago and Philadelphia, responded to the special-ed discrimination complaint by saying it's "off base." He told the Times-Picayune that a third of his schools are "outstanding" on the issue, a third are "getting there," and another third "need to make improvements." Shirley, whose organization counts about 90 percent of Louisiana's charter schools and all of New Orleans's charters except one as members, concedes that there are "unintended consequences" when instituting a new system.

Andre Perry, CEO of a cluster of schools under the Capital One–University of New Orleans Charter School Network, echoes Shirley's explanation. One of his schools, Pierre A. Capdau Charter School, has just 3.52 percent enrollment of students with disabilities. But Perry says the problem is a lot more complicated than schools neglecting special-needs obligations.

"The ultimate problem is that there are not enough resources in the system," said Perry. "There is no one entity trying to get the schools, stakeholders, activists, and lawyers together to argue for greater funding for special-needs kids, and that's one of those areas where it will take a citywide effort, especially in a city like New Orleans, where such a great percentage of students are considered special needs." Actually, the percentage of public-school students in New Orleans considered special needs is pretty low: just 8 percent. In Baltimore, the percentage of special-needs students was 15.3 percent in the school year 2008–09, while in St. Louis, the percentage was 17.4. New Orleans special-ed advocates say the city's numbers are undercounted, especially given the trauma of Katrina. The SPLC legal complaint accuses New Orleans charters teachers of not doing "child finds"—proactively identifying children who may have disabilities, as mandated by IDEA.

New Orleans has benefited from extra federal funding provided to help rebuild its school system after Katrina. But a lot of that was one-time money, and the federal spigot is closing. The charters in New Orleans will have to figure out very soon how to financially sustain themselves without federal grants. A major issue they'll have to confront is how to pay for special-education services, considering that they appear to be already underserving their students in that area.

For that, Perry and Shirley both agree that some centralization—or "voluntary collaborations"—will have to take place in areas such as special ed and enrollment. For example, instead of each of the charters having their own enrollment process, there would be one entity that coordinates enrollment for all. Charter schools that thrive on autonomy won't like it, but it would allow for a more consistent approach.

Perry makes the point that the system should also reevaluate how it determines which students have special needs, and whether that process itself is sustainable or accurate. "A lot of special-education advocates have lost sight [of the fact] that it wasn't that long ago that we were talking about the labeling of people," says Perry. "Not long ago, we realized that not all of these black boys can have ADHD, and were asking why is it that there is such an overrepresentation of black kids with IEPs?"

"Specifically, that may be a problem nationally, but not in New Orleans," says SPLC attorney Eden Heilman, lead counsel on the complaint. As for the voluntary collaborations, "I think that is one possible solution, but I don't think it should be limited to just special-ed students. That should be available for all students."

One of the remedies the SPLC's legal complaint requests is the appointment of a "special master" for New Orleans's charters and traditional public schools (public schools' special-education services were no better before the storm than charter schools' are now) who will, among other things, implement a system that helps identify children with disabilities, track how they're being punished, and enforce IDEA compliance. The last one is particularly critical given that there are 435 Teach for America teachers and staff working in New Orleans schools, many of them in charters. During teachers' training, Teach for America doesn't instruct on compliance with IDEA, says Kaitlin Gastrock, regional communications director for the organization. They "touch upon it" for special-education teachers, though. The failure to include this training may affect young teachers, who can't comply with a law they don't know about. Shirley and LAPCS have already hired consultants from the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice to come up with a new special-education plan.

"We have to solve it, and I think it's doable," she says, "but we are the only place that really is a system now of mostly charters rather than traditionally run public schools. So, while we can look at best practices elsewhere, we can't just look off someone else's paper and steal the answers."

Brentin Mock is a New Orleans-based journalist who regularly contributes to The Root and Colorlines. His reporting on post-Katrina affairs can also be read at The American Prospect, The Daily Beast, Next American City, and The Lens.

Editor's Note: When this article was originally published, we were unaware that the author is engaged to a lawyer for SPLC, although she is not working on the case in question. Had we known of this relationship, we would have disclosed it to our readers.