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Teachers’ unions against children with autism

Ann Wiesner’s daughter struggled in school until she was admitted to Lionsgate Academy, a Minnetonka, Minnesota-based charter school specializing in autistic children in grades 7 through 12. 12th year. Now the daughter is “thinking about the future”, her mother says. “She talks about getting a job and living on her own.” If Washington regulators get what they want, other kids will be denied that opportunity.

At her primary school of 900 students, even with a paraprofessional by her side, “she had conflicts in the hallway, pushing matches with other children who were sitting in what she thought was her seat,” says Ms. Wiesner, who for confidentiality reasons asked me not to use the girl’s name. Lionsgate has smaller classes, a quieter environment, and staff who understand children with autism. Although they are paid less on average than public school teachers in the region, Lionsgate teachers are not overloaded with paperwork and can devote their time to teaching.

The Wiesners and hundreds of other families might not have had the opportunity to attend Lionsgate without grants from the Charter School Program, a federal fund that supports new charters and those seeking to expand. From 2017 to 2019, Lionsgate received grants totaling over $500,000 to open a new campus. But new regulations proposed in March by the Department of Education would make it much harder for schools like Lionsgate to get that support.

The rules, influenced by teachers’ unions, would require charter operators to submit a “community impact analysis” involving “descriptions of community support and unmet needs for the proposed charter school, including information on the overstaffing of existing public schools”. Schools would also have to show that they “would not otherwise increase racial or socioeconomic segregation or isolation in schools whose students are, or would be, drawn to attend the charter school.”

Yet over-enrollment in public schools isn’t why Lionsgate opened or why it has a waiting list of more than 200 families. There are places in mainstream schools for children like Ms Wiesner’s daughter, but their special education programs cannot successfully meet the needs of children with autism.

Lionsgate opened in 2008 with 61 students. It now has 340 students on three campuses. It says its graduates are living independently at rates more than four times the national average for adults with autism. Lionsgate graduates are also more likely to have attended college and worked for pay.

Special education has become a catch-all in many districts for children with behavioral issues, mental health issues, and physical disabilities. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts must provide “free and appropriate public education” to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. When they can’t, they have to pay for private schools that will. Families with resources can spend years fighting in court to find out if their children are receiving these services. Those lucky enough to live near Lionsgate can simply enter the lottery.

The pandemic has increased the need for high quality special education. A 2020 survey by advocacy group ParentsTogether found that 40% of children in special education had not received any support this spring and only 20% had received all the services to which they were legally entitled. The majority of parents report that their school districts have not offered any compensatory services to compensate for the deficits suffered by their children as a result of Covid closures and other restrictions.

Which makes it all the more scandalous that the Ministry of Education proposes to put the burden on the charters to demonstrate that they are necessary. Charter schools applying for federal grants will also have to show that they work with local public schools, which many try unsuccessfully to do. Charters regularly attempt to share best practices but are generally rejected by neighborhood schools which have little incentive to cooperate. Wendy Swanson-Choi, executive director of Novation Education Opportunities, a Minnesota nonprofit that licenses charter schools, says that typically when a district hears about a charter being opened, “we don’t feel any interest for the collaboration or support or sometimes hostility of the traditional district or school.”

How might schools like Lionsgate describe their potential impact on the racial makeup of feeder schools? Lionsgate attracts children from more than 40 districts and admits them by lottery. It is shocking that the Department of Education is denying children with autism a good education in the name of preventing change in the racial makeup of other schools.

Cara Bell, whose son Nolan will be graduating from Lionsgate this year, says she doesn’t know where he would be without school: “His long-term mental health and self-esteem would be quite significantly diminished. Nolan was regularly bullied at his old school and used to pour all his energy into survival, Ms Bell says. Now he has a part-time job and has been able to “learn at the highest level possible”.

As for the draft regulations, Ms. Bell states the obvious: “I don’t think that a person offering a competing service is the right person to ask if there is a need. There is a long waiting list here. We need more Lionsgates.

Ms Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of ‘No Way to Treat a Child’.

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