NEW ORLEANS — When talk-show host Oprah Winfrey handed a $1 million check last September to the principal of New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, 200 students watched the broadcast from a church and celebrated with a brass band.
Lawrence Melrose, a ninth-grader with learning and emotional disabilities, sat next door in a school office. The staff was concerned his fighting and cursing could be an embarrassment, said Shelton Joseph, his great-uncle. Because he has trouble communicating, Lawrence needed intensive counseling and speech therapy, which the school didn’t provide, Joseph said. He was repeatedly suspended and told he couldn’t take the school bus with other kids, according to his lawyer.
The education of 16-year-old Lawrence represents a common complaint about privately run, taxpayer-financed charter schools: They often exclude children with serious disabilities or deny them the help they need, violating federal laws.
“They left me,” Joseph recalled the boy telling him on the day of the Winfrey celebration. “They left me out.”
Along with the academy supported by Oprah’s Angel Network — which the entertainer used to raise money from the public — New Orleans charter schools accused of discrimination include those that are favored charities of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Wal-Mart Stores’s Walton family and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Shunning special-education students helps school budgets since the average disabled child costs twice as much to serve as a nondisabled one, said Thomas Hehir, who oversaw federal special-education programs under President Bill Clinton.
“There’s no incentive to take these kids,” Hehir, now a Harvard University professor, said in an interview. “If you can avoid educating them, there are other things you can do with the money. You can pay people more or reduce class size.”
Under federal law, all public schools — including charters — must educate students with disabilities. Charters and other public schools must come up with an individual plan for every child with a disability. They are expected, when appropriate, to place special-needs students in regular classrooms with extra support, such as an aide.
If a child needs more help, the school can set up a separate class or send the child elsewhere, including a private school. The school pays the bill, and parents have a legal right to challenge each decision. Students with disabilities also have special protection when they are disciplined if the behaviors are related to their condition.
‘Just not practical’
Charter schools, which tend to be small and receive less tax money than traditional districts, can’t afford to take on children who may cost tens of thousands of dollars to educate, said Andrew Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit research group. The children need to stay in better-funded districts, he said.
“It’s just not practical and feasible” for charter schools to educate severely disabled children, said Coulson, whose organization favors free markets and limited government. Parents “know that every school can’t serve every child.”
Charters on average receive $9,460 per student in local, state and federal money, 19 percent less than traditional districts, in part because many don’t get money for buildings under state laws, according to a 2010 Ball State University study.
About 1.8 million children — or 4 percent of public school students — attend charters, five times the number in 1999-2000, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington.
Charters last year received $14.8 billion in local, state and federal money, up from $4.5 billion in 2003, estimated Larry Maloney, president of Washington-based Aspire Consulting, which analyzes public-education finances.
Many districts are under fire
New Orleans, Los Angeles and Washington, three districts that rely on charter schools, face claims of systemic discrimination in special-education court cases, including allegations that charters aren’t open to children with serious disabilities.
While federal data show that charters and traditional districts have similar percentages of kids in special education, the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation found that charters in Louisiana, California, New York and Texas had fewer with more severe disabilities.
Only 1 percent of the students in Los Angeles charter schools have serious disabilities, such as autism, compared with 3.5 percent at district-operated schools, according to the system’s court-appointed monitor. Twenty-nine out of 186 charters didn’t have a single child with serious disabilities.
Charter enrollment practices may screen out children who are hard to educate, according to reports by monitors in Los Angeles and Washington. The Gates foundation disagrees. Parents are often leery of leaving established district programs, where they are well served, said Don Shalvey, who oversees the group’s charter-school philanthropy of $475 million in the past decade.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans turned to charters as a way to rebuild schools and overhaul public education. Its charter schools now enroll more than 70 percent of students, a larger share than in any other U.S. district.
Last October, 10 families, including Lawrence’s, filed a federal special-education discrimination suit against the state of Louisiana. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group in Montgomery, Ala., represents the families. Charter schools aren’t named as defendants, and the allegations include complaints about services at conventional schools, as well.
Kids kept away
A lanky teenager who dreams of joining the Army, Lawrence reads and does math at roughly the third-grade level. Along with attention deficit disorder, he has language-related disabilities that make his speech difficult to understand.
Rather than provide all the services he needed, New Orleans Charter Science and Math excluded him by suspending him repeatedly and keeping him from going to the Oprah celebration, according to the lawsuit.
Some other students also didn’t attend the ceremony to protect children’s safety, Benjamin Marcovitz, the school’s founder and principal, said in a phone interview. Angela De Paul, an Oprah Winfrey spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Lawrence struggles because of failings of his previous schools, and the academy did everything it could to help him, including paying for a mentor, Marcovitz said.
“Lawrence is a pretty beloved member of our school community” and returned to school this year, Marcovitz said. After the lawsuit was filed and repeated meetings with the family, the school shifted its approach last December, providing the mentor, speech therapy and instituting a plan that rewarded him for good behavior, according to Eden Heilman, a Southern Poverty Law Center senior staff attorney.
Kelly Fischer, another plaintiff, toured New Orleans charter schools in March 2010 to find a spot in fourth grade for her son Noah, who is blind, autistic and eats from a tube.
Administrators from three charter schools told her they couldn’t handle Noah, according to her notes.
“You do not want your son to come here,” Laura Todaro, a counselor at Samuel J. Green Charter School, told Fischer, according to her notes.
“When people within the educational field, professionals, tell me that he’s too much for them, it’s kind of like telling me there’s no hope for him,” Fischer said.
The Samuel Green school, run by FirstLine Schools, received a $279,000 donation from the foundation of NFL quarterback Brees. Chris Stuart, Brees’s agent, declined to comment.
Todaro, FirstLine’s director of counseling services, said she remembers her conversation with Fischer differently. She told Fischer and another parent with her that the schools educated children with disabilities in regular classrooms — a philosophy of “complete and total inclusion” — and didn’t have anything already in place to serve Noah, Todaro said.
“I’m sorry if she took away that he couldn’t come here,” Todaro said in a telephone interview. “We always try to accommodate the needs of the kids.”
The family of another child in the lawsuit said he was shortchanged at KIPP schools — a charter network that operates across the country. San Francisco-based KIPP is featured in “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” the documentary directed by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim that lauds charter schools. The Gates and Walton foundations support KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program.
In the New Orleans lawsuit, the mother of a 16-year-old said he didn’t get the help he needed from KIPP Believe College Prep. Because of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the boy, identified in the suit only as L.W., reads at the second-grade level and had failing grades and scores on state standardized tests.
The school’s special-education plan included no social work, counseling or psychological services, according to the complaint. At KIPP Renaissance High School last year, the boy received only 30 minutes of counseling a week, the suit said.
“We are deeply committed to serving all students,” including the 9 percent last year who had disabilities, Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, executive director of KIPP New Orleans Schools, said in a statement.