Did Oprah Winfrey-Backed Charter School Discriminate Against Disabled Students?

A federal lawsuit says the school, once featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and others denied services to students with disabilities.

Posted: 09/25/2011 11:23 AM EDT
Filed Under Oprah Winfrey

The axiom that every child deserves equal access to education was breached at several popular New Orleans charter schools, according to a federal lawsuit pending against them. Numerous charter schools, including those backed by Oprah Winfrey, Microsoft's Bill Gates, retailer Wal-Mart and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees have been accused of breaking federal law by not serving children with disabilities. The children are named as plantiffs in the legal battle, which stems back to 2010.


Charter schools in New Orleans were seen as a way to rehab the city's failing education system and serve 70 percent of city's children. Before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, 64 percent of New Orleans schools were deemed academically unacceptable by the state. That number dropped to 42 percent by 2009.

 

The Loop 21 reports:

 

Lawrence Melrose, 16, needed counseling and speech therapy, which wouldn't be provided by the New Orleans' Charter Science and Math charter school that was made popular through its association with Oprah Winfrey. Instead, he was frequently suspended and not allowed to ride the bus. The lawsuit says the school kept him from attending a celebration where students watched Oprah Winfrey hand the principal a check for $1 million.

 

The exclusion of children with serious learning and emotional disabilities occur often, says the lawsuit, at charter schools, which comprise the majority of public schools in New Orleans. The exclusion of special needs kids also helps charter schools' test scores, since children with disabilities typically do not test well.

 

Education reform advocate Karran Harper Royal told Loop 21 that a lack of oversight and monitoring, a result of decentralization of the school system's special education department, allows these problems to persist.

 

"I do believe that they think it's totally acceptable for children like Lawrence to be collateral damage," Royal said.

 

Charter schools operate independently of the district board of education, provided they meet specific academic goals outlined in their charter, which is presented to the state for approval and funding. Many parents choose charter schools for their specialty programs and small class sizes.

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