Virtual charter school admissions for students with disabilities in Wisconsin

Families of students with IEPs who have applied for open enrollment to a Wisconsin virtual charter school for the 2010-11 school year will likely have received their notices of approval or denial by now. A previous post took a preliminary look at virtual school enrollments for students with IEPs, which are lower than the proportion of students with IEPs in the general school population. Since then, the following information has been obtained, via public records request, from the state Department of Public Instruction, regarding open enrollment applications for admission to virtual schools by students with IEPs last year (2009). (Most Wisconsin charter schools are included in the table below, but virtual schools with de minimis enrollment have not been included. Also, the information on denials below focuses on denials by virtual school districts for reasons of "special education space not available" or "special education program not available"; and denials made for other reasons by the virtual school district or denials made by the student's resident school district aren't included here.) Enrollment information listed below is from the DPI web site.

There seems to be strong interest by students with IEPs in virtual schools. (Note, however, that since up to three school districts can be selected in an open enrollment application, the actual number of students with IEPs who applied for virtual school admission is likely less than the 1,377 open enrollment applications by students with IEPs shown above.)  Rejection rates and reasons for rejection also appear to vary from virtual school to virtual school. I'll note that one of the districts with a nominally high application approval rate has in the past issued approval for open enrollment into the district, but then assigned the virtual school applicant to a brick-and-mortar school, with the practical effect of denying the applicant's request to be enrolled in a virtual school (since there is no reason to expect that the applicant will enroll in a brick-and-mortar school long-distance), and the procedural effect of precluding the applicant's ability to appeal the brick-and-mortar "assignment" decision to the DPI (since an open enrollment denial can be appealed, but an assignment to a specific school cannot be appealed). It would be useful to know how widespread this practice is, but this information is not collected or tracked by the DPI.

When a virtual school's chartering district rejects the enrollment application of a student with an IEP, presumably it does so based on the IEP on hand that is forwarded by the student's resident school district, which is likely to have been developed for a brick-and-mortar setting and placement considerations specific to the student's resident school, and which may or may not be appropriately individualized for the virtual school setting and program to which the student has applied. No discussions are held with the student's parents or other members of the IEP team to determine appropriate placement or services prior to the approval or denial decision being rendered. A typical denial notice does not state or explain the criteria that the virtual school's chartering district applied to reach its determination that no special education program or space is "available" for the rejected applicant.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded public schools. This means that criteria for admission to a virtual school chartered by a school district that receives federal funds cannot treat a student with a disability differently from a student without a disability, unless necessary to achieve the mission of the program in question. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that Wisconsin virtual schools provide equal opportunity in admitting students with disabilities? It's unlikely that the chartering school district (LEA) whose admissions practices treat students with disabilities differently, and unlawfully, will police itself. It's also unlikely that the state Department of Public Instruction (SEA) can be expected to exercise appropriate oversight and guidance, when it neither tracks nor monitors admission practices or data that would prompt concern of a systemic problem. Representatives in the state legislature who are proponents of virtual schools, and whose efforts to lift the 5,250-student cap on virtual charter schools appear to have stalled, don't appear to be responsive to the suggestion that such legislation also include protections to ensure equal access for students with disabilities. Let's see if the Department of Education's newly expressed interest in reinvigorating civil rights enforcement for students with disabilities might lead to the Office for Civil Rights taking a careful look at admissions policies, procedures and criteria for students with disabilities who may be encountering unlawful barriers in being denied admission to Wisconsin virtual schools.

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