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  • Writer's pictureKarla Phillips-Krivickas

Prioritize Students, not Programs When Legislating Open Enrollment

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

This blog was originally published on redefinED .

For 25 years, Arizona’s open enrollment law has allowed families to send their children to any public school they choose, even those outside their local school district. Yet open enrollment has remained out of reach for many students with disabilities.

That’s because while the state’s open enrollment law allows districts to establish and implement necessary policies, many of which guide efforts to determine capacity, these policies and capacity determinations are frustratingly limiting and opaque for the families of students with special needs.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledged this shortcoming in his 2021 Policy Book, saying, “The way we do open enrollment at school districts across the state is overdue for reform. It’s time to make it truly open for all.”

Lawmakers responded this year by introducing comprehensive legislation to remove obstacles families can face when seeking open enrollment and improving transparency in how districts determine capacity and approve applications.

The bill also specifically prohibits schools from limiting admission based on ethnicity or race, national origin, sex, income level, disability, English language proficiency or athletic ability. Correspondingly, schools will be prohibited from requiring the submission of any documentation other than that which demonstrates a pupil’s age and residency. This includes any special education documentation.

Parents can — and will — select the best school for their child

Opponents of the bill argue that districts should be able to determine the services a student with a disability would need prior to admission. They claim the districts’ inability to preview all special education documentation is somehow a disservice to the child and family.

Unfortunately, evidence shows the disclosure of these materials has led to high rates of rejection for students with disabilities. It also furthers the idea that only the school administrators will know if a school is a good fit for a child, not the parents who requested enrollment at the school in the first place.

This idea presumes parent incompetence, something I personally find a bit insulting.

Parents know their children best. And since parents of students with disabilities have spent years advocating for their kids (often since birth), we are quite adept at researching and locating the services our students need. Moreover, the law is very clear that it is not the school that determines a student’s needs but rather an Individualized Education Program Team—which includes the parents.

The bill still allows school districts to establish a timeline for their open enrollment process with deadlines that allow sufficient time to determine all incoming student needs.

The bill’s opponents have voiced concerns of already diminished resources and shortages of critical personnel, but these problems are statewide, indeed nationwide, and the movement of students doesn’t change that. In fact, if a student moves into a district, the same dilemma exists, regardless of the student’s needs or how much advance notice the schools are given.

While there are shortages of many critical positions in education, it’s not — quite honestly — a family’s problem to solve; nor is it specific to special education. And the parents of students with disabilities shouldn’t be the only ones asked to shoulder that burden.

Prioritize students, not programs

The bill specifies that enrollment capacity should be determined primarily by grade level. Though districts can calculate capacity for “specialized programs,” the legislation clarifies that these do not include special education programs.

This is important because districts are using “program” enrollment caps to reject the enrollment of special education students even when those students’ parents are requesting enrollment in a regular classroom and not a special program. The word “program” has never been questioned until now.

The “quality specialized special education programs” that experience limited capacity are segregated, self-contained classrooms. But most special education students spend the majority of their day in general education classrooms.

At the core of federal special education law is the priority of “least restrictive environment.” Under this policy, school districts are required to educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate. Consequently, it is discriminatory for any school to presume placement in any type of program simply by a disability diagnosis.

And, at the risk of going too far into the weeds, I must point out that in special education, the term “program” commonly refers to the Individualized Education Program, not district-created, aggregated programs. As a result, it is impossible to determine capacity outside of anything but grade level.

All families deserve choice

Federal law is clear that special education is a service, not a place, and that programs are to be individualized. If Arizona is going to offer public school open enrollment, then it must be a real option for all students.

All we are asking for is equal opportunity under the law for our children.

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