Charter schools have always been a contentious topic since their inception in the mid 1970s, and embraced by the American Federation of Teachers a decade later. Space limitations prohibit a detailed history of charter schools here, however, it is worth sharing a few details to help orient the reader and better appreciate the nature of Excluded by Choice. Charters originated as a creative, experimental alternative to highly-bureaucratic, regulation bound, and often poorly performing state schools. They can be non-profit and for-profit, receiving public funds if their students take state mandated exams. In brief, in the beginning, charter schools were conceived of as places where dedicated educators could run their own schools, developing ideas and forging innovation. Since then, proponents believe the charter school movement has been a crucial step in closing the educational achievement gap between Black and White students (Sowell, 2020), while opponents charge that the movement has been hijacked by neo-liberal ideological forces that promote market values ahead of human ones (Ravitch, 2020). A major bone of contention between both camps is that charter schools have been reconceptualized as businesses. As such, they are in competition with each other and with traditional schools for public funding. At the same time, as businesses, they aim to tempt "consumers" with various offers in order to distinguish themselves. Seats in charter schools therefore, subject to supply and demand, are now part of the market-economy of public education. And in the open marketplace of unfettered capitalism, the Darwinian zeitgeist dictates only the fittest schools survive, while others fade and die. Of course, the world of charter schools is far more complex than what I've been able to describe here. In Excluded by Choice, Waitoller deftly guides us through this changing educational landscape, with a particular focus on the most vulnerable students, Black and Latinx children with disabilities from low economic backgrounds.

Urban. Education. Race. Ethnicity. Promises of long denied opportunities. A major question raised by Waitoller in this Brave New World is: How successful are charter schools in providing an education for children of color with disabilities? Subsequently, he explores the degree to which the body of charter schools deliver promises they readily make. In Excluded by Choice, he locates their Achilles Heel.

"I thought I hit the jackpot," Waitoller begins by illustrating the initial excitement experienced by a parent when she finds out her son with autism has been awarded a place in a local charter school. It's the first of many narratives shared from twenty-four parent participants, interviewing them in their homes in neighborhoods across Chicago. Parents, he reveals, once disenfranchised by public school experiences, now feel empowered because their children are now a sought-after commodity for new charters schools. The lure of smaller class sizes, promise of a safe environment, and eagerness of a new enterprise favorably influence parents in their choice. They're told charter schools increase academic test scores, have high graduation rates, and greater access to college. In some cases, this is true. However, overall, as Waitoller demonstrates through extensive citations of research published to date, charter schools actually yield mixed findings. His own study illustrates how charter schools, as currently configured, can actually be detrimental to the academic, social, and emotional growth of Black and Latinx students with disabilities by actively seeking to push them out through a combination of four commonplace practices: "(1) inflexible and rigorous academic and discipline practices, (2) delay and/or denial of special education services, (3) lack of adequately trained personnel, and (4) suggestions that parents 'choose' another school" (p. 14). The author notes that half of the parents in his study removed their children from charter schools, and the ones who did stay, did so by fighting for the rights of their children with the use of lawyers and disability advocacy groups.

The paradox of Black and Latinx students with disabilities being embraced by charter schools only to be rejected is the theme of the book. In chapter two, Waitoller takes us under the skin of this deeply disturbing aspect of charters, contemplating both subtle and blatant ways in which ableism and racism circulate simultaneously, fusing to create formidable obstacles that can become insurmountable for students and their families. Crudely put, their experience appears to be one of being subjected to "bait and switch," leading him to question how parents are influenced in making their initial decision. Subsequently, he outlines four groups of policies and discursive practices that shape parents' initial perceptions of charter schools as a beacon of light, all based upon their intersecting social locations of race, disability, class, and geography. These are, "(1) Uneven economic investment from city government inscribed in the state sanctioned racially segregated geographies of the city, (2) austerity measures that slashed special education funds and services, (3) school policies and practices that segregate students with disabilities in separate classrooms, and (4) deficit discourses of communities of color and students with disabilities" (p. 20).

Once their children are safely in charter schools, parents are frequently faced with a shock. Many special education services that their children are legally entitled to, and need for support, are not present. However, as Waitoller points out, "Parents living in areas of extreme poverty had poor experiences with special education services in CPS [Chicago Public Schools] due to austerity measures, which contributed to their decision to move their children to charter schools" (p. 37). Between a rock and a hard place, parents opt to leave "the rock they know" for "the hard place they don't know but promises more than CPS," including more inclusive placements. Closing down many "underperforming" schools that ironically provided services to students with disabilities, to have those students placed in charter schools without them, appears a commonplace practice. Interestingly, as Waitoller points out, charter schools have higher rates of inclusion into general education for students with disabilities. Given the issues he raises, we are obliged to ask the perennial question: included into what? It appears that the experiences of Black and Latinx students with disabilities in many charter schools is negatively shaped by a lack of support and services. Unfortunately, this situation is further exacerbated by their expectations of conformity to academic and behavioral standardized "norms" that do not account for disabilities impacting students' school performance.

Chapter four is titled, "The Cruelty of Optimistic Attachments," referring to "push out practices in charter schools" (p. 69). It is a sobering look into the conundrum of charter schools who promise a safe place and sense of belonging and yet don't mobilize to sufficiently support students with disabilities. In Waitoller's sample, only a minority of families stay. One parent describes charter schools' response to disability as a form of benign neglect saying, "They'll let you weed yourself out so that their image could stay up" (p. 71). Another mother reveals that because her son unfolded a paperclip in class, he received detention for destruction of property. Yet another parent shares how her daughter had some "episodes" of screaming, causing her to lose the privilege of having a snack along with peers, prompting meltdowns that, in turn, resulted in six suspensions IN KINDERGARTEN. These instances exemplify the absurdity of overzealous zero tolerance expectations associated with the rigor professed by some charter schools that are imposed upon children. Again and again, the author shares ways in which initial identification of a disability, and therefore attendant support (that has to be funded), is delayed and/or denied, acknowledging that these practices are clear violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. Compounding this negation of disability and legal procedures shows the paucity of highly qualified teachers in Chicago. For example, up to fifty percent of the teaching staff in a charter school can work with only a bachelors' degree, five-year work experience in that area, and passing a state test for temporary certification. Furthermore, a complete teaching certification in special education can be obtained by completing four graduate level courses. This situation allows for a fast turn-over of teachers woefully unprepared to understand the needs of racially and culturally diverse children with various disabilities. Additionally, the situation allows for charter schools to be conceptualized and structured having students with disabilities as an afterthought.

Chapter five focuses on "Sustaining the Hopes of Inclusion" when parents feel their journey has brought them to a fork in the road that leaves only two options for survival, fight or flight. Parents spoke openly about being patronized, their desires unacknowledged, their concerns dismissed, based upon how they felt they were perceived at the intersections of race, class, and disability. Tellingly, half the parents took one option, and half, the other. Most recalled ways in which schools used tactics to avoid evaluations and Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, attempting to sidestep legal obligations. To counter these tactics, some parents counter-mobilized with legal resources, reminding schools of their mandated and ethical obligations to students with disabilities. In some cases, notes Waitoller, representatives from CPS and the lawyers hired by parents "…acted a kind of market consultant, offering other schools for their child," leading him to conclude, "…market-driven approaches may not improve the educational options for students with disabilities, as they only result in shuffling students into different schools, without addressing the core ableist practices that produce educational exclusion" (p. 111).

Chapter six looks at the consequences to students and their families of the paradoxical promise of belonging coexisting with push out practices of charter schools. Waitoller shares how of the thirteen children who were pushed out of their charter schools, six of them ended up in more segregated settings from a highly limited array of options. Indeed, he found Chicago's charter schools "enrolled disproportionately lower rates of students with disabilities who require more extensive educational supports (such as students with autism, intellectual disabilities, or sensory impairments that require specialized teachers, assistive technologies, one-on-one assistance, or occupational therapy, while enrolling significantly higher proportions of students who were diagnosed with learning disabilities" (p. 115). Moreover, students with disabilities were more likely to receive detention. One network charged families five dollars every time detention was given, escalating family tensions commensurate with fines levied, exacerbating already difficult situations. A parent commented of her son, "It didn't help…it just made him angrier, because they wouldn't even let him walk the halls. They ostracized him" (p. 118). Others shared how teachers without knowledge of disabilities such as autism, misread their children's behaviors, taking them personally, while the school environment grew increasingly oppressive for such students. The author does not shirk from using the word "cruel," to describe some situations that Black and Latinx children are subjected to as part of the high cost for their inclusion in charter schools.

In chapter seven, Waitoller braids the information from preceding chapters to advance a theory he calls "Fantasies of Inclusion in the Education Market Space," illustrating the paradoxes of inclusion/exclusion within market-driven reforms. By examining charter school space as a pull-and-push phenomenon, enticing students with disabilities only to eject a majority of them, he renders ways in which schools select—and have a greater commitment to—students who most closely approximate normalcy. The profile of a "successful" charter school student is therefore one who has minimal supports and legal protections (qualified teachers, special education services, etc.), and is readily assimilated into "middle class and able-bodied norms of being" (p. 137). In sum, the author believes parents are presented with a fantasy of inclusion that self-renews through iterations of the next possibility that are, for many, the false illusion of "choice."

In chapter eight, Waitoller closes the book with recommendations in moving "Toward an Intersectional and Radical Inclusive Education." He rightfully notes that there is, to date, insufficient literature on successfully creating inclusive communities that center children with disabilities as integral to charter schools. Additionally, he laments the original intent of charter schools, to serve as small incubators of progressive educational practices that could be grown and generalized to all schools. To counter trends of parental experiences with charter schools, the author advances comprehensive and thoughtful recommendations for practice, policy, and research, detailing specific ideas, all in the service of ensuring more equitable opportunities for Black and Latinx children with disabilities.

The main strength of this volume is how Waitoller helps readers make sense of ways in which multiple systems interconnect among macro, meso, and micro levels. At the macro level, he describes the history and current state of market-driven educational reforms. At the meso level, he illustrates schools, their policies, and practices. At the micro level, he captures the lived experiences of children with disabilities and their families. Simultaneously, he frames these connections within the mega-structures of ableism and racism that have permeated our history, revealing ways in which they manifest for Black and Latinx low-income families who have children with disabilities. The use of clear, accessible language helps Waitoller accurately portray the wide scope of his subject matter, helping illustrate how the expansion of charter schools "…represents the complicated relationship among capitalism, disability, and race" (p. 142). As he notes, Excluded by Choice is "the first book to examine the constitutive relationship of ableism and racism as it materializes in the experiences of parents with such policies, and thus it identifies a new form of racial inequity" (p. 149). In another recently published book on charter schools, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, Pondiscio (2020) analyzes Eva Moskowitz's high-profile charter network, Success Academy, in New York City where she admits they're not places for everyone. Her position raises difficult questions: Who doesn't fit the profile? Who isn't included? Who is expendable in charter schools? In Excluded by Choice, Waitoller provides these answers.

On a different but important note, Waitoller's use of sociocultural theory, critical disability studies, critical race theory, and critical geography, creates a highly nuanced and insightful lens through which he considers a complex phenomenon. His thorough approach is evidenced in an appendix detailing research questions, methods, data sources, and analyses.

Finally, Excluded by Choice is part of the Disability, Culture, & Equity Series of Teacher College Press curated by Alfredo Artiles of Stanford University. Each of the eleven previous volumes in this notable series have provided new ways of considering disability in cultural contexts while emphasizing ways to address long standing inequities. Waitoller's work is a welcome addition, striking a chord that, once heard, cannot be forgotten.

References

  • Pondiscio, R. (2020). How the other half learns: Equity, excellence, and the battle over school choice. Avery.
  • Ravitch, D. (2020). Slaying Goliath: The passionate resistance to privatization and the fight to save America's public schools. Knopf.
  • Sowell, T. (2020). Charter schools and their enemies. Basic Books.
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