Castle Rock, CO

Many DougCo parents say school choice doesn’t exist for them

Suzie Glassman

By: Suzie Glassman/NewsBreak Denver

(Castle Rock, CO) When one DougCo mom (who didn’t want to be named) learned her son had autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she thought their current charter school would be a good fit.

She loved the structure American Academy provided; at first, his teachers were great at giving him the emotional support he needed.

Yet, he continued to suffer academically, falling farther below grade level and failing to meet his individualized education plan (IEP) goals.

When it became clear American Academy didn’t have the resources or desire to do more for her son, she felt she had no choice but to move him to their neighborhood school.

Cases like this are common in DougCo.

Fifteen of the district’s 18 charter schools have fewer than 8% of their students on an IEP.

And schools like Academy Charter (2.3%), Ben Franklin Academy (3.6%), Aspen View Academy (3.6%), North Star Academy (4%), and Platte River Academy (4.1%) have less than 1/3rd the district average of 12.9%.
2022-2023 Top 35 DCSD Schools by Lowest % of students on an IEPPhoto bySuzie Glassman

According to the Colorado Department of Education, “As public schools, charter schools must open their enrollment to any student who lives within the authorizing school district, and must provide appropriate special education services as needed by students with disabilities.”

But many of these students, who have mild educational needs, are discouraged from applying for open enrollment or find the school can’t meet their needs once they’re accepted and begin the process of convening an IEP team.

One mom on Facebook said that when she enrolled two of her children at a DougCo charter, the administration told her they couldn’t accommodate her third child because he has Down Syndrome.

The decision left her driving to separate schools each morning and afternoon, which was less than ideal.

The flip side is also true.

Sometimes, a charter school is preferable to a neighborhood school for students with different educational needs, depending on the type of instruction they offer or the pace of learning. Yet, special education students aren’t given priority enrollment and may not get accepted.

These parents say that while school choice has been great for siblings or friends, many schools they’d prefer are not an option.

School choice discrimination complaint

Late last year, lawyers from Disability Law Colorado filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Colorado’s school choice law discriminates against students with disabilities.

Emily Harvey, youth advocacy team leader for Disability Law Colorado and the lead author of the complaint, told Chalkbeat, “The school choice law is not discriminatory on its face, but if you look at it in the context of special education and what families are being told and which families can’t enroll in a choice school, that’s when it becomes problematic.”

School districts often cite school choice law as a reason a student on an IEP is denied enrollment at a school. As long as that student can meet their needs at another district school, they aren’t violating that student’s rights.

The argument is circular, which is frustrating for many parents. School choice allows you to opt-in to a school but also enables that school to say, “we can’t help you.”

According to Chalkbeat, Harvey filed the lawsuit for all students and “named the State Board of Education, Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, and the Colorado Department of Education as the entities engaged in discrimination because they oversee the open enrollment system.”

The Office of Civil rights has yet to decide to open an investigation.

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I'm a reporter covering the Douglas County School District in Colorado.

Denver, CO

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