Teachers Unions vs. Children With Autism

Ann Wiesner’s daughter struggled in school until she was admitted to Lionsgate Academy, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based charter school that specializes in serving children on the autism spectrum in grades 7 through 12. Now, the girl “thinks about the future,” her mother says. “She talks about getting a job and living on her own.” If regulators in Washington have their way, other children will be denied that opportunity.

At her 900-student elementary school, even with a paraprofessional by her side, “she got into conflicts in the hallway, shoving matches with other kids who were sitting in what she thought was her seat,” says Ms. Wiesner, who for privacy reasons asked me not to use the girl’s name. Lionsgate has smaller classes, a calmer environment and a staff that understands autistic kids. Though they are paid less on average than teachers at area public schools, the Lionsgate teachers aren’t burdened with piles of paperwork and can devote their time to teaching.

The Wiesners and hundreds of other families might not have gotten the opportunity to attend Lionsgate without grants from the Charter School Program, a federal fund that supports new charters and those looking to expand. From 2017-19, Lionsgate received grants totaling more than $500,000 to open a new campus. But new regulations proposed in March by the Education Department would make it much more difficult 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 need for the proposed charter school, including information on over-enrollment of existing public schools.” The schools would also have to show that they “would not otherwise increase racial or socio-economic segregation or isolation in the schools from which the students are, or would be drawn to attend the charter school.”

Yet public-school overenrollment isn’t why Lionsgate opened—or why it has a wait list of more than 200 families. There are seats at regular schools for children like Ms. Wiesner’s daughter—but their special education programs can’t successfully meet the needs of children with autism.

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

Special education has become a catchall in many districts for children with behavior problems, mental-health issues and physical disabilities. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school districts have to provide a “free and appropriate public education” to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. When they can’t do this, they have to pay for private schools that will. Families with resources can spend years fighting in court over whether their children are receiving those services. Those lucky enough to live near Lionsgate can simply apply for the lottery.

The pandemic heightened the need for high-quality special education. A 2020 survey by the advocacy group ParentsTogether found that 40% of kids in special education hadn’t received support at all during that spring, and only 20% received all the services they were legally due. The majority of parents report that their school districts haven’t offered any compensatory services to make up for the deficits their kids suffered as a result of Covid closings and other restrictions.

Which makes it all the more outrageous that the Education Department proposes to put the onus on charters to demonstrate that they are needed. Charter schools applying for federal grants will also have to show that they are collaborating with local public schools—something many futilely try to do. Charters regularly attempt to share best practices but are usually rebuffed by neighborhood schools that have little incentive to cooperate. Wendy Swanson-Choi, executive director of Novation Education Opportunities, a Minnesota nonprofit that authorizes charter schools, says that typically when a district hears a charter is opening, “we either experience no interest in collaboration or support or sometimes hostility from the traditional district or schools.”

How would schools like Lionsgate be able to describe their potential impact on the racial makeup of feeder schools? Lionsgate draws kids from more than 40 districts and admits them by lottery. It’s shocking that the Education Department would deny autistic children a good education in the name of preventing change in the racial makeup of other schools.

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

As for the proposed regulations, Ms. Bell states the obvious: “I don’t think that someone 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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