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The Irony of Rigor: Black and Latinx Students with Disabilities in Charter Schools by Federico Waitoller

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

At first, it was alluring: children walking silently in straight lines, homework retention rooms, strict uniform policies, the promises of accessing a college education, and small student-teacher ratios. And it was all free, publicly funded, and in the same neighborhood where so many other schools have failed to provide them with a safe environment and with services that attended to the individual needs of their child. For parents of students with disabilities living in areas impacted by poverty, crime, school closings, and economic disinvestment in the city of Chicago, charter schools seemed a dream, as Janae, a Black parent of a student with autism, articulated, “I thought I have won the lottery.”

But dreams end when one wakes up. And it was time to wake up. In the first days of school, parents received various calls about their child’s misconduct; repetitive suspensions followed. As Angela, a Black parent of a student with a mood disorder shared, “she was suspended 6 times in kindergarten” and Dominique, a Black parent of a student identified with a learning disability and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), stated, “I drop him to school and I thought who is going to call me today.”  Sometimes, charter schools punished students with disabilities for minor actions such as unfolding a paper clip, not wearing the uniform, not finishing homework, and other times for what can be considered a more serious action such as fighting with a peer. In any of these events, there was a combination of rigorous and inflexible academic and disciplinary practices, a reluctance to provide any specialized support services for students with disabilities, and a lack of trained personnel that constituted a disabling and punishing school, contributing to students’ behaviors. In some cases, charter schools denied or delayed an evaluation to identify the student for special education services, which kept students from services that could have prevented many of the situations they found themselves in. Students’ negative behaviors escalated. Some students suffered from depression: “her depression started getting worse to the point that I could not get her up from bed anymore. This girl, her depression became so bad that she could not go to school,” said Angela, Latina mother of a student identified with a learning disability and an anxiety disorder.

Parents were then asked to choose a better fitting school for their child with a disability, or to choose “what was best for their child,” as a parent stated. Parents were offered the freedom of choice— or rather, the illusion of choice as there was never much of a choice in the first place.

Ironically, all parents who were lured by the disciplinary and academic rigor of charter schools were implicitly or explicitly asked to leave the schools because their child could not conform to such rigorous and inflexible practices.  Parents experienced the irony of rigor.

The above narrative emerged from a research project in which I examined the experiences of 24 Black and Latinx students with disabilities (Waitoller & Super, 2017). All the parents I interviewed experienced some sort of conflict with the charter school. But those parents living in areas of poverty experienced the irony of rigor. These areas have been affected by economic disinvestment, school closings, and by discourses that pathologize communities of color (Stoval & Smith, 2012). For instance, more than 60% of all school closings since 2000 in the city of Chicago were located in areas deeply impacted by poverty and disproportionally Black (Waitoller & Super, 2017).  The conditions of these areas contributed to parents longing for schools that were safe for their children with disabilities as many of their children experienced bullying and parents were afraid of gang violence inside the school and in the path to and from school. Charter schools are predominately located in these areas (more than 60% of all charter schools in the city), particularly those that rely heavily on Zero Tolerance or Broken Windows types of discipline policies.

The major consequence of the irony of rigor was not that parents moved to another school. Many parents stayed in the charter schools despite experiencing unsustainable conflict because they did not perceive any other school as an option for their child. The most significance consequence of rigor was the deterioration of students’ behavior and health as illustrated in the narratives above.

These experiences were also exacerbated by the wear and tear of parents who had simultaneous personal struggles such as dealing with sickness, and finding a stable job and housing.  As Simone, a parent of a student with disability who was experiencing housing instability shared, “I was under so much stress. Then this with the housing, and then my own health going down. My mom’s disabled, and she’s got her own issues and health and senior. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I just dropped the ball and I just gave up.”  Simone was tired of fighting the charter school and moved her daughter to another charter school.

In the conversation about educational choice, we need to think first what kind of schools do we want for our children? What kind of schools can nurture the next generation of expert learners who are socially sensitive and critical citizens for a participatory democracy? Traditional public schools such as neighborhood schools have a long history of disserving students with disabilities, particularly those of color. Charter schools were originally established to foment teacher independence from bureaucratic mandates and entice teaching creativity and innovation to address educational problems traditional schools were not able to solve. The expectation was that they could serve as small incubators of educational practices that then could be scaled up to all schools. Yet, it seems that the original intent of these schools has vanished like a sea wake.

The charter school movement has been more concerned with rapidly expanding charter networks with debatable disciplinary policies and results (Weitzel & Lubinesky, 2010) than with innovation for educational equity. In fact, a large-scale study at the national level found that charter schools were not more innovative than traditional public schools (Preston, Goldring, Berends, & Cannata, 2012).

Can charter schools reclaim their original meaning and be a catalyst for equity? Can they be leveraged to move towards a radical and transformative inclusive education?  I look forward to reading what you think.


Lubienski, C. A., & Weitzel, P. C. (2010). Information use and epidemics in charter school policy. In C. A. Lubienski & P. C. Weitzel (Eds.), The charter school experiment: Expectations, evidence, and implications (pp. 197-218). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Preston, C., Goldring, E., Berends, M., & Cannata, M. (2012). School innovation in district context: Comparing traditional public schools and charter schools. Economics of Education Review, 31(2), 318-330.

Smith, J. J., & Stovall, D. (2008). ‘Coming home’ to new homes and new schools: Critical race theory and the new politics of containment. Journal of Education Policy, 23(2), 135-152. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930701853062

Waitoller, F. R., & Super, G. (2017). School choice or the politics of desperation? Black and Latinx parents of students with dis/abilities selecting charter schools in Chicago. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 25(55). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.25.2636

Author Note: A complementary blog post was published in August 2017 at https://hawkhopesblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/07/charter-schools-race-and-ability-have-a-sticky-relationship/.

[1] I used the term Latinx as a gender-neutral demographic category that includes any person of Latin-American origin or background. This term avoids the perpetuation of gender binaries (female/male).

Author Biography: 

Dr. Federico Waitoller is an associate professor at the department of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on urban inclusive education. In particular, his work examines and addresses policies and practices that generate or reproduce inequities for students of color with disabilities. Dr. Waitoller is also interested in examining how these inequities are affected by the production of space in urban economies and the role of teacher learning and school/university partnerships in developing capacity for inclusive education.