For-Profit Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities: The Sordid Side of the Business of Schooling

Article excerpt

As they strive to make money and fulfill their promise to improve educational outcomes, for-profit charter schools in Massachusetts often ignore special education law and treat students with complicated disabilities as financial liabilities, the authors charge.

IT'S HARD NOT to be drawn in by the rhetoric. Your public schools are failing. Your children aren't learning. The school system, choked by regulation and held hostage by unions, won't respond to your concerns. We will. We are America's "huge, vibrant, and creative" private sector.1 Our success is based not on compliance with government regulations or mandates but on creating the best product and attracting the most customers. We will revitalize the public school system with market-based competition. All we ask in return is something as American as free speech - the opportunity to make a profit. Think about it. What do you have to lose? Wouldn't you like to have a choice for your children?

That's the sales pitch. And it's a good one. Across the country, communities are considering turning over their public schools to private businesses. Businesses, always ready to seize an opportunity, especially in a market as potentially lucrative as public education, have been quick to respond.2 A number of management companies are investing in the business of schooling, and the concept that many of these companies have invested in is the for-profit charter school.

Companies find the charter school formula attractive: a steady flow of public money combined with exemptions from costly government regulations and school board requirements such as collective bargaining. In exchange for this funding and freedom, charter schools are expected to fulfill the terms of their charters, which usually have to do with improving student test scores over a fixed number of years.

During the past six months, we have been studying the way that for- profit charter schools in Massachusetts handle special education. Of the state's 33 charter schools, nine are for-profits, giving Massachusetts one of the highest percentages of for-profits in the nation.3 With more than 5,200 students, these schools have more than half of the entire charter school enrollment in the state. At the time of our study, five of these schools had been in operation for at least two years. This fall four new for-profits opened. Our study focused on the five original for-profit charter schools, though we did review the applications of the new schools and interview a number of prospective parents.

Our interest in the for-profits' special education programs was provoked by reports that substantial numbers of students with disabilities were leaving the five original charter schools and returning to their local public schools. After we analyzed charter school applications, annual reports, and financial statements; interviewed dozens of parents, community members, and school and government officials; and reviewed government documents and memos as well as articles from the popular press and professional journals, a picture emerged of for-profit special education programs that sharply contrasts with the idyllic images of successful "inclusive models" that these companies have presented to the public. While they have done a decent job of including students with mild disabilities, for- profit charter schools in Massachusetts have engaged in a pattern of disregard and often blatant hostility toward students with more complicated behavioral and cognitive disabilities.

The source of this pattern is the very same factor that the companies that manage these schools use to explain their success - the profit motive. As they strive to make money and fulfill their promise to improve educational outcomes, for-profit charter schools often ignore special education law and treat students with more complicated disabilities as financial liabilities. This attitude has been reinforced by a state government that coddles charter schools while singling them out as examples of free-market accountability and innovation. …


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