This story was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School.
NEW YORK — For both boys, the struggles at school started in the first grade.
Isaac Rosenthal was a fast talker with a big vocabulary. But when it came time to read, he couldn’t keep up with his classmates. He didn’t pick up on the rhyme scheme in Dr. Seuss books, and often mispronounced words whose meaning he knew (like “Pacific,” for which he’d substitute “the other ocean”).
Landon Rodriguez, four years younger than Isaac, was energetic and talkative at home but quiet and withdrawn at school. When he brought home reading assignments, Landon often confused Bs and Ds, and he labored through even short passages.
By the end of that seminal school year, both of their parents knew that something was wrong. In second grade, each boy was diagnosed with an unspecified learning disability and started receiving special education services at their public schools. “The teachers had no clue how to teach him,” said Debbie Meyer, Isaac’s mother.
Both families ultimately realized their sons needed support the public schools could not provide, particularly when it came to the all-important task of teaching them to read.
But that’s where their similarities ended.
Isaac and Landon grew up just 15 blocks from each other in Harlem, but they inhabit very different worlds. Isaac, whose parents make a six-figure income through work as a consultant and liquor distributor executive, goes home each afternoon to a newly-renovated brownstone. Landon, whose mother Yolanda immigrated from the Dominican Republic as a child and is raising her three children alone, shares a bedroom with his siblings in a public housing complex.
Both families set their sights on an option known as “private placement”: a federal guarantee that school districts must pay for tuition at a private school if they can’t meet the needs of a child with a disability. That set both families on an arduous and circuitous path — one biased toward wealthier families who have the money to hire pricey lawyers and the time and savvy to do extensive research on how private placement works.
Indeed, once the two families made the decision that their sons’ needs could not be met in the public schools, their educational journeys could not have been more different.
Who gets private placement? White, wealthy families
Two students with dyslexia search for help in NYC
Landon and Isaac both have dyslexia and need special schooling. The system they had to navigate to get that help favors students with economic means.
Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
When Congress passed the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, guaranteeing children with learning disabilities a “free and appropriate education” for the first time, it built in the private placement safety net for parents. In some cases, public school officials acknowledge they can’t accommodate a student and agree to pay tuition at a private school. But sometimes families must sue the school district in order to get the tuition covered.
In New York City, where private placement is unusually common, the city spent almost $800 million in the 2016-17 school year on private school tuition for students with disabilities, city budget documents show. City officials settled close to 4,000 lawsuits for tuition reimbursement that year. Washington, D.C., spends about $20 million for 883 students. Overall, private placement is much more popular in coastal states and large cities, where there’s a bigger supply of specialized private schools. There are more than 10,000 privately placed students in both New York and California, compared with only two in Michigan and none in Nevada.
The stakes can be high: In New York City, only half of special education students graduate public high school within four years, and the city itself estimates more than 20% never receive all the services to which they’re entitled by law. With those odds for public school students, a spot in a specialized private school can be a lifeline.
But which students are getting these coveted funded private school spots? Critics have long argued the process is skewed toward wealthier families, but no federal data exist to show the number or demographics of students who participate in private placement — much less how they fare. In fact, it’s so confusing that several media outlets have used the wrong numbers to describe the phenomenon, publishing the number of kids in private schools who get some special education services from their districts, rather than the number whose tuitions are funded by the public schools.
To help fill this void, the Teacher Project surveyed all 50 state departments of education about private placement trends. Seventeen states responded with demographic information about students in publicly-funded private schools — data that for the most part revealed a stark overrepresentation of white and wealthier students.
In five of the seven states which reported the largest private placement enrollments, white students are significantly overrepresented. In California, Massachusetts and New York, for instance, the share of white students in private placement exceeds the share in public special education by about 10 percentage points. And in both California and Massachusetts, low-income students with disabilities were only half as likely to receive a private placement as their wealthier special education peers. (New York did not release complete income data.)
Even though it’s technically free, private placement is less accessible to low-income families because securing one often requires lawyers, expensive outside evaluations or other out-of-pocket costs, said Jennifer Valverde, a law professor at Rutgers University who specializes in special education
“Basically, if you’re poor, you’ve got second-class remedies available to you,” she said.
The problem is likely worse than the data even suggest. Most states don’t collect information on students whose (usually wealthy) families place their children in private schools, and then sue the district to reimburse tuition costs for the ones with disabilities. In New York City, more than 4,500 families sued for tuition reimbursement in 2018 alone.
Beyond the disparities in who gets access to private schools, there are glaring divisions in the quality of the schools themselves. On one end, elite schools in New York City offer state of the art facilities, cutting-edge teaching techniques and sticker prices of $100,000-a-year. But on the other, a tier of schools — often geared toward children with “emotional disturbance” diagnoses, who are disproportionately students of color — practice questionable, sometimes harmful, disciplinary techniques like secluding children in locked rooms at far higher rates than the surrounding public schools. In recent years, for instance, Accotink Academy in Washington, D.C., restrained kids 321 in a single school year, and the Dooley School in Richmond, Virginia, restrained kids nearly 1,000 times (even though it enrolls only 63 students). Both schools have majority-black student bodies and a focus on emotional disturbance.
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Indeed, the investigation showed an utterly unregulated shadow school system that often vaults families with means into nurturing, rigorous schools largely unavailable to their poorer peers. The system shunts the hardest-to-teach kids into schools-of-last-resort, which tend to be subject to fewer checks and balances than their public counterparts.
When Landon’s mom, Yolanda Rodriguez, began looking for a private school for her son, she didn’t know how thoroughly the odds were stacked against her. She just knew she had to act. “At the rate he’s going, he’s not going to be able to pass his classes,” she said last spring. “It’s upsetting, but I’m willing to do anything to help him.”
Isaac: ‘Like you’re not as good as everyone else’
Before Isaac started kindergarten, his mother, Debbie Meyer, visited the zoned elementary school he was supposed to attend in Harlem’s District 5. She discovered spelling errors on one of the posters a kindergarten teacher had made.
So she sought out another option, eventually settling on Central Park East II, a well-regarded public school that accepts students from across the city. Getting in required some maneuvering. The parents had to meet with school officials and drop Isaac off for a solo visit; they also personally lobbied the school’s principal, according to Debbie.
“I thought we won the lottery,” she said.
At Central Park East II, teachers go by their first names, and Isaac enjoyed the progressive approach, including lessons on chemical processes taught through baking bread.
But as reading became a bigger and bigger part of school, Isaac’s feelings began to change.
“I realized I wasn’t as advanced as my classmates and my friends. I was falling behind,” Isaac, who is now 14, recalled. “It was dehumanizing, like you’re not as good as everyone else.”
When, in second grade, the school diagnosed him with a learning disability, they assigned Isaac basic supports, including meetings with a speech and occupational therapist and a classroom with two teachers.
But they never addressed the root cause of Isaac’s struggles with reading, Debbie said. When the occupational therapist noticed Isaac hunching low over his desk to hide his work during writing assignments, for example, she proposed working on his abdominal conditioning.
Debbie was beginning to suspect something else was going on. Her husband’s family had a history of dyslexia, a disorder that interferes with the brain’s processing of written words, and she recognized the signs in Isaac. (School officials had previously told her they couldn’t specify whether his learning disability was dyslexia.)
At the end of third grade, Debbie tried an experiment. She paid $10,000 to send Isaac to a summer camp for students with dyslexia that included hours of dedicated phonics instruction each day, along with sports and horseback riding. Isaac blossomed there, writing pages-long letters home to his family. The experience affirmed for Debbie that Isaac needed specific reading instruction for kids with dyslexia, something even his comparatively well-resourced public school wasn’t providing.
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Two of Debbie’s sisters-in-law had already found their kids with disabilities city-funded spots in private schools. So Debbie knew there were private schools that could offer the kind of specialized teaching Isaac needed.
When Isaac returned to public school for the start of fourth grade, Debbie decided she was going to do everything in her power to make it his last year there.
Landon: Trying to read, then tears
Just blocks away in the Harlem River public housing project, Yolanda Rodriguez, Landon’s mother, had few of the same resources as Debbie. She knew nothing about dyslexia, couldn’t afford to send her son to a reading-intensive summer camp, and knew no one who had sent a child to a private school on the city’s dime.
Landon, unlike Isaac, attended his zoned elementary school: PS 76, where only 3% of students were white and 95% received free or reduced-price lunch. Almost a quarter of students at the school had a disability, and Landon slid by undetected for more than two years because he had no behavioral issues and his learning challenges were more subtle.
But Landon had one advantage over many of his classmates: As part of a school partnership with a local nonprofit, he was one of a handful of students assigned an out-of-school mentor in kindergarten.
Almost immediately, Landon’s mentor, a former attorney named Colin Gilland, noticed the young boy had unusual difficulty reading. “The early reports from the teacher were that he was doing great,” Gilland recalled. “So I was surprised, because when I did homework with him, he struggled with reading.”
The problems continued when Landon moved to nearby PS 200 in first grade. In second grade, Gilland asked the school to give Landon an evaluation, then watched with dismay as a teacher simply read words aloud and asked Landon to repeat them.
The school district ultimately reached a similar conclusion as it had with Isaac: Landon was diagnosed with an unspecified learning disability and put in a class with other special education students. Many of them had severe behavioral and emotional needs.
Landon got little-to-no specialized support in reading. By the time he finished second grade, he was still reading at a kindergarten reading level. “It’s frustrating seeing your son trying to struggle to read,” Yolanda said. “Especially when he starts crying.”
Yolanda had no idea publicly-funded private schools were even an option — until Gilland told her about them.
Isaac: Thousands of dollars for lawyer, dyslexia exam
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