Eye on special education
‘Portfolio districts’ promise responsiveness to student needs – but is there accountability?
By by Judith Gran
Philadelphia’s current restructuring plan is based on the “portfolio school district” model, where there is an array of public, charter, and other schools operated by independent organizations. Parents have choices among a “menu” of schools, including schools that are not operated by the District. District administration manages the portfolio of schools based on performance, closing poor-performing schools, expanding capacity in those that are doing better, and opening new ones designed to meet community needs.
How do special education students fare in a portfolio model?
Advocates of the model say that a portfolio system is more responsive to students with diverse needs and make two arguments that students with disabilities would be better served. The first is that “schools of choice” with highly individualized programs can educate students with disabilities in general education classes or avoid the special education label altogether. The second is that the model encourages the creation of specialized schools for students with particular instructional needs or specific disabilities such as autism.
Yet research shows that overall, “schools of choice” are less likely than traditional schools to serve students with low-incidence disabilities and high levels of need.
And we cannot forget that special education students are not simply students with autism, dyslexia, or other disabilities. These students have unique interests and needs that have nothing to do with their disabilities. Should they have to choose between attending the same school as their siblings, friends, and neighbors and receiving specialized services? Should a student with a deep love of music have to choose between attending a special school for the arts and getting the supports he needs?
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates integration, recognizing that students with disabilities and their peers are more alike than different. A proliferation of special education schools for students with significant disabilities would violate that principle – one that parents won a hard-fought battle to codify into law.
Advocates of the portfolio model say there must be a network of assistance organizations from which schools can purchase services to meet the diverse needs of their students. But what happens if principals have carte blanche to purchase support services, yet decline to purchase the services their special education students need? And how do we assure that these services are available and delivered competently? Where does the accountability come from?
Many special education advocates are concerned that if schools are dependent on the assistance network run by Philadelphia’s Intermediate Unit, IU 26, they will be encouraged to place students in segregated IU-operated special education classrooms. Our experience with the quality, availability, and responsiveness of technical assistance provided by Philadelphia’s IU has not been positive.
Supporters of the portfolio model do acknowledge that the free market, left to its own devices, will not create the needed range of schools or the services needed by the students in those schools. That is exponentially true for special education students.
The portfolio model rises and falls on the strength of the management by the authorizing authority. The School District as portfolio manager must be able to provide intensive professional development, aggressive recruitment of teachers and principals, robust data and accountability systems, and powerful communication systems to get parents the information they need to make choices.