Sometimes, a legislator’s biggest handicap is his own good intentions.
That’s what appears to be happening with a bill regarding special-needs students that is being rushed through the Louisiana Legislature. The bill would require that each charter school admit a minimum percentage of “students with an exceptionality, not including gifted and talented” and would provide funding commensurate with the number of those special-needs children.
Sponsored by state Sens. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, and Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, Senate Bill 267 looks so mom-and-apple-pie-like that it passed the Senate unanimously in April. A House committee easily moved it to the House floor, where it is slated for consideration Tuesday.
Legislators should reconsider. Part of the bill could be terribly counterproductive.
First, let’s highlight what’s good about the bill: the new funding formula, if it is applied with a full year’s warning so schools can adjust budgets accordingly.
Right now, for regular public schools, extra funding flows to systems with more special-needs students. But charters instead get funded at the per-pupil average of their full school districts, regardless of how few or many special-needs students they serve. The Claitor-Murray bill would end this discrepancy.
Good. If charters underserve students with “exceptionalities,” the new funding formula would give them incentive to enroll more.
The bill’s other major provision, however, is quite misguided. It would provide an effective quota on each charter school, so each school’s percentage of special-needs students would be at least 85 percent of the overall district’s percentage. The quota, unfortunately, is a blunt instrument that might ill-match students with schools, to the detriment of both.
It’s also somewhat of a solution in search of a problem: Statewide, 9 percent of charter school populations are special needs, compared to 11 percent at public schools. Not much difference.
More importantly, the entire theory behind charter schools is that choices and incentives combine to produce better results. Hard quotas directly undermine those intentions.
“How do you put a quota on choices?” asks Caroline Roemer Shirley, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools. Great question.
“We seem to be moving down a path that choice should look a certain way,” Shirley continued. “That’s not what charters are for. The primary work should be creating great schools that any parent would feel great going to, not putting the schools in a certain corner. What I believe in is, you make sure any kid has access; you have transparency in your application process; you provide the right food and transportation options; and in general, you do everything you can so that students can attend if they want to.”
The better plan, Shirley said, would be to use the 85 percent standard not as a quota but as an indicator that there might be a problem. The school’s authorizer — either the local school board or the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education — could then investigate to ensure the school isn’t discriminating against special-needs kids. Shirley noted that BESE just this year closed down the Lagniappe charter school in New Orleans for special-education infractions — proving, she said, that authorizers can hold schools accountable without needing the bludgeon of a quota.
That is exactly what U.S. District Court Judge Jay Zainey, himself the parent of a severely autistic child, did in a consent decree in February. On behalf of some special-needs students, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the state Department of Education, alleging that state schools failed to fully comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But rather than impose strict quotas or other such remedies, Zainey ordered a system of enhanced monitoring.
This approach — good-faith accountability, backed by the application of common sense instead of utterly inflexible regulations — is precisely the one advocated by acclaimed author Philip Howard, whose book “The Death of Common Sense” sparked a nationwide reform movement against over-regulation.
Unfortunately, SB267 moves in the opposite direction. It’s baffling that a supposedly conservative Legislature would adopt the far-left tactic of quotas. The House should amend the bill to eliminate hard numerical requirements — and allow good oversight, combined with the incentives of the bill’s new funding formula, to supply the solution for a “problem” that isn’t very big to start with.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is email@example.com, and he blogs at blogs.theadvocate.com/quin-essential.