06/26/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

The Damage Done by Special Education Disparities

The recent GAO report, "Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities," could help us understand why well-intentioned school "reforms" have done so much harm to the children that they were designed to help. The problem is not special education students. The problem is not charter schools. The problem is the refusal to acknowledge what would have been necessary to help schools with extreme concentrations of traumatized children as they had to serve even greater numbers of students with disabilities left behind in an age of choice.

The GAO showed that 11.3% of public school students are on IEPs in comparison to only 7.7% for charter schools. Based on my experience, its key statistic is that 15.5% of IEP students in public schools have disabilities that require them to remain outside of regular classes 60% of the day or more. Only 6.7% of IEP students in charter students have such severe disabilities.

In the mid-1990s, all of the high schools in the Oklahoma City Public Schools were about two-thirds low income. My school was no different, and about 20% of students were on special education IEPs. The first day of class, it was easy to identify students with learning disabilities. They sat on the front row, with their notebooks organized according to the individualized plan provided by special education teachers. Almost all of these students worked hard and worked smart, and they made the entire class better. Like our other top students, those types of kids with cognitive disabilities are now benefiting from the proliferation of magnet and charter schools.

Even then, it was equally easy to identify many of the students with serious emotional disabilities and conduct disorders. When the principals did not try to discipline the "hall-walkers" who got into verbal and physical altercations on a daily basis, we knew that the reason was that our administrators were not allowed to assess consequences for behavior that flowed from the students' disability. For instance, principals were not allowed to suspend students with those sorts of IEPs for more than ten days for possessing a knife if the blade was shorter than two and a half inches.

I must stress that the problem was not the principals and counselors, or the troubled students. The assistant principals spent most of their 80 hour work weeks counseling with the relatively few students who created most of the school's disorder. The A.P.s thus were a great help in giving advice regarding kids who had been born with crack in their system and found in a dumpster, who had seen their parent(s) murdered or who attended more funerals than birthday parties, or whose mental illness was untreated. The assistant principals could not help, however, by enforcing the code of conduct, even when students acted out their pain by continually disrupting class, roaming the halls, bullying other kids who were suffering in the same way, and committing felonies.

Similarly, it was a privilege to work with our amazing National Board certified counselor. When a student had a psychotic breakdown during testing, the counselor continued to do all of the paperwork associated with collecting test booklets, as she stabilized the student, worked out logistics with the parent and mental health providers, and supervised my help in calming the teen, while occasionally ushering me out of confidential conversations that I was not allowed to hear.

Even after the proliferation of choice and the gutting of our alternative schools turned our school into a 100% low income school with up to 30% of students on IEPs, I often saw the same excellence when co-teachers implemented the "full inclusion" of special education students. Since those classes were subject to high stakes testing, they were not assigned the most troubled students. This meant that 40% of students in non-tested core classes like mine were on IEPs, and many elective teachers were assigned twenty or more IEP students per class. Even so, in the morning, we did not look like the lowest performing secondary school in the state, as students and teachers taught and learned in an orderly environment.

Before choice, I would not have understood what it was like to teach the type of class described by Paul Tough and Nadine Burke where eight to ten kids in a class of thirty had been traumatized so badly that their cognitive functions had been altered. After a decade of choice, that became my new normal. My early morning classes had more IEP students than all of the city's charter schools combined (excluding the charter alternative school, of course.) Even so, learning continued. My students who had endured trauma beyond my imagination continued to work well into the late morning, as the school became overwhelmed by the rapidly increasing number of "hall-walkers." At lunch, the adults did not suddenly become incompetents, but all semblance of control was lost. Afternoons were complete anarchy.

I recognize why parents want choice so that their children do not have to attend dysfunctional neighborhood schools, and I celebrate the good fortune of my former students who transferred to charter or magnet schools or discreetly (but illegally) enrolled in suburban schools. I can understand why charters do not want to tackle the complexities of the IDEA special education law. There is nothing in that law that is irrational, however. If about 10% of every school's student body was on IEPs, the law would not be an undue burden.

Now, my old school is receiving $10,000 per student in School Improvement Grant money, so perhaps it can become almost as effective as it was before it was overwhelmed. It would have been much cheaper, and much more humane for students, to have prevented its collapse. My school's "tipping point" came about the time when one-fourth of our students were on IEPs. Around that time, it became impossible to keep up with the paperwork, much less differentiate instruction or provide the supports our kids needed. I must emphasize, however, that I saw our school's excellence, as well as defeats. Had policy makers been able to recognize what it would have really taken to serve our most challenging children, and given us the resources to tackle problems that charters do not face, we would have not have cratered.