Photo from Options Public Charter School

Options Public Charter School routinely denied students with disabilities textbooks and placed them in overcrowded classrooms, according to current and former teachers at the school. The mounting allegations raise questions about the lack of special education oversight in DC.

DC’s Attorney General has alleged that former managers of the school diverted at least $3 million to their own pockets. The lawsuit followed an investigation initiated by the DC Public Charter School Board into contracts between the school and two for-profit companies founded and controlled by its managers. That investigation came on the heels of a Freedom of Information request about the contracts filed by the Washington Post’s Emma Brown.

Options, the city’s oldest charter school, was founded to address the needs of the District’s most troubled students with disabilities and received tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. The DC government allocates $28,884 for each student with disabilities, almost three times the amount allocated for other students.

Each October, DC officials visit schools to count the students enrolled and use that number to help determine the school’s budget. According to one current teacher at Options, boosting student enrollment for “count day” has been a central goal of the school administration.

Former Options administrator Jeff Smith, who is not named in the lawsuit, led a marketing campaign in the summer of 2012 to boost enrollment before the count. The school gave students $25 Visa cards and free pizza for coming to school on count day, according to the teacher.

Chronic understaffing

However, this enrollment push did not include hiring extra teachers so that Options could maintain the teacher-student ratio that it promises. Options says it “ensures a six to one student to teacher ratio” in order to provide the personalized attention required by special needs students. According to the school’s website, every classroom is supposed to have a special education teacher along with a general classroom teacher.

The Options teacher had 16 students per class on average last year, with two teachers per class. One of his classes had more than 20 students, 6 more students than desks in his classroom.

A former teacher at the school said that understaffing routinely led to the loss of one teacher from the classroom.

“Sometimes teachers didn’t come to work, so they would have to pull teachers to cover,” the teacher said. “So I would lose my special ed teacher for the day.”

The former teacher said that rather than buying textbooks for students who might transfer out before the end of the year, the school chose not to send textbooks home with students. Instead, the teacher would give students xeroxed copies of the text to use for homework.

Speaking of the general atmosphere at the school, the former teacher said, “What is driving everything is money, and the bottom line is that these kids need services.”

The court-appointed receiver for Options, Josh Kern, told GGE that he was unable to comment on the teachers’ charges “with limited information about the specific allegations and limited time to respond.”

Allegations similar to these have also appeared in the Post. One teacher told the Post that the school often lacked basic supplies like copying paper. And a former teacher said that several students spent the majority of the school year in a room for misbehaving kids, where they did not receive the services they were due. Smith denied that any students spent the majority of the year in such a room but told the Post that other charges were possibly true.

Minimal oversight allows lapses to go undetected

Special education services are a matter of federal law, specifically the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). All public school systems are required to identify students with learning disabilities, conduct assessments, and then determine what special education accommodations the students require. But there appears to be little or no oversight to ensure District public schools comply with IDEA.

DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) last conducted on-site monitoring of Options to ensure special education compliance in December 2011. The most recent visit before that was in May 2009.

As with all on-site visits to monitor special education compliance, OSSE posts a calendar on its website announcing these visits in advance.

OSSE has no authority to close charter schools, even if they are found to violate special education regulations repeatedly. Only the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) can close a charter school. But, although it will crack down on obvious violations of IDEA and respond to parent complaints, it does not regularly monitor schools for special education compliance.

PCSB spokesperson Theola Labbé-DeBose says the Board expects to decide whether to initiate proceedings to revoke Options’ charter at its December 16 meeting, with a final decision at its meeting in January. But, she said, even if the Board decides to begin revocation proceedings, “the school would remain open through the end of this school year.”

The federal government used to focus more on enforcing compliance with IDEA requirements. But in 2012, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that the Department would shift its efforts from ensuring the delivery of accommodations to tracking the performance of special education students on standardized tests.

“For too long we’ve been a compliance-driven bureaucracy when it comes to educating students with disabilities,” said Duncan. “We have to expect the very best from our students. The best way to do that is by focusing on results.”

Given this lax oversight, only families who are able to afford attorneys can hold District schools accountable for providing special education services for their children. At Options, 84% of students are low-income, according to the PCSB.

While the theft of public funds by Options officials angers many and is the focus of the District’s lawsuit, the real victims are the school’s 400 special needs students. Rather than keeping the school open, the DC government should immediately offer to pay their tuition at any private school in the area that will admit them and that provides the services they need. That would be expensive, but cost is not supposed to be a consideration under IDEA.

But even if Options is closed, as it should be, the system that allowed the school to deprive hundreds of students of accommodations they were legally entitled to year after year will still be in place.