Earlier this month, an investigation by StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald revealed that most Florida charter schools are not enrolling students with severe disabilities, like autism or cerebral palsy.
The findings caused Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado to share her own story of how her daughter with autism was forced to leave a Miami charter school.
“People think that parents choose not to apply to charter schools, and that’s not true,” said Regalado.
“And within the special needs community, parents know, why even apply? Because legally they have the ability to deny you access. That’s why I wanted to tell people that it happened to me.”
Raquel Regalado’s 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, is high functioning for a kid with autism.
Isabella’s really comfortable around books. She loves to read and sing. And run. And she keeps her mom busy chasing after her.
In 2008, Regalado says both her children were enrolled at Miami Children’s Museum Charter School.
“The school was one that I had helped found,” said Regalado. “It was a site that I had advocated for.”
But when Regalado learned that Isabella has autism, she says charter school staff told her, “[Isabella] can’t stay here.”
And that’s true for most Miami charter schools. Our investigation found that less than 3 percent enroll students with severe disabilities.
Regalado says “it’s a shocking, sad statistic,” which is why she wanted people to know her story. She says policymakers are starting the understand the problem.
“In my case, I think it’s significant to them, not because my daughter is autistic, but because I’m a school board member and the daughter of the mayor. And if this happened to someone with influence, what happens to everyone else?
“And they’re totally right. I knew my rights. I knew exactly what was going on. I was willing to pay for the resources out of my pocket.”
But Regalado couldn’t change the charter school’s decision. Regalado says her hands are tied, because she says charter schools can turn away some kids with disabilities.
“They’re not doing anything illegal. The statue is so vague. They’ve been given so many exceptions and so much flexibility that they’re allowed to navigate outside of what we consider moral and ethical in many cases. But it’s completely legal.”
Charter schools are required to take every student that applies. But if they choose not to offer the proper therapists and resources for students with disabilities, then the students can’t go there.
Regalado says a charter school could voluntarily start to offer those services. But she says many are reluctant to “because once you get a therapist, once you have someone that can provide the service then you can no longer deny access to special needs children.”
In Miami-Dade County, state funding only covers 60% of the cost of education students with disabilities. So Regalado says charter schools lose money when they take those students.
“In the traditional public system, we do. It’s not profitable for us. But here’s the thing. Do we want education to be a business or not? Is it a public service?
“Is it a right that we have? Or is it a business? And that’s where we’re at right now in Florida. We’re trying to define that,” she said.
She says the problem is that charter schools get funding based on how well their students perform academically. So there’s an incentive to attract high performing students.
She says that this goes against the perception of charter schools.
“Because the perception, the sell, is ‘here’s an option, here’s choice’, right? And every time I would hear the Governor say the word choice I would cringe. Because it’s not. It’s not,” she said.
“Choice implies that a choice is available to everyone. No one is saying choice with a caveat. Like ‘we’ll only take high performing children.’ But that’s what’s going on here,” she said.
And this doesn’t only leave out kids with severe disabilities. Regalado says it also leaves out students with mild disabilities, like ADD, and students with behavioral issues.
Now, Isabella is at a traditional public school in Miami that has a program for kids with hearing impairments.
This story is part of WLRN’s StateImpact Florida education reporting project, which examines the effect of state policies on the lives of students, educators and parents in our community.