KIPP Is The Sun We All Revolve Around! And, Tough Special Needs Questions

You thought it was all about CEP, but no, it’s all about KIPP these days. Over at In The Trenches TFA blogger Mr. AB says that KIPP is taking the “best kids” (see his follow-up, too)from his school. Joanne Jacobs responds. And at Small Talk Mike Klonksy dings KIPP because the program doesn’t work for some special needs kids per this generally positive evaluation of KIPP (pdf) from SRI. This sort of brings us back to this issue of whether we need one or a few models or rather a continuum of options for students including ideas like KIPP.

To Mr. AB’s point — which is well worth reading because it illustrates an important debate — the idea that we restrict the choices that parents have in the alleged service of the greater good just doesn’t fly in a society like ours. One inescapable theme of the last 40 years of school reform is that if unsatisfied parents can walk, one way or another, they will. What’s different now is that low-income families can increasingly walk through ideas like vouchers. That ought to discomfort public school supporters more than it apparently does. Essentially, saying that a good public option like KIPP is skimming the “best” families so we shouldn’t have it, is saying to these families that they should forgo something that might be in the best interest of their kids because of a potential abstract good for all kids. That’s not exactly how you build brand loyalty and it’s not what we ask more affluent people to do and not what they do. To beat a dead horse some more, the way to build support for the public schools is not to give parents fewer choices in the public system but to give them more.

Klonsky raises an important point, too, citing the part of the SRI report that says “[KIPP] schools admittedly are not equipped to handle students with severe learning or emotional disabilities. But wait, within the public system today there are all kinds of programs, magnets, theme schools, etc… that do not work for all kids, especially those with severe learning or emotional issues. Yet they don’t get castigated like KIPP, on the contrary they get lionized as exemplars of the best of public education Why? Power of course. They don’t threaten today’s vested interests like KIPP does.

Again the question is whether there are good options and a continuum of options so that all kids have high quality services, not whether they’re all served in the exact same place and way. That’s something of a heretical notion but it’s not an argument for “separate but equal.” Instead, it is an argument against artificially leveling down all the options available in the public system so things are mostly the same.

Of course, there are gradations within all this (for instance learning disabled students, who make up more than half of the special education population and vision and hearing impaired students are a different issue than students with severe multiple disabilities) and one of the really interesting and important questions to answer as more choices become available in the public system is how those choices interact with special education and the important rights those students have. Most schools can/should serve most students, including those with special needs, and clear policies and strong oversight are necessary. But is it a reasonable standard that every school will be able to serve every kid? We don’t do that now and the emphasis on uniformity hasn’t worked out all that well anyway. Worth noting, the flip side of this coin as it impacts special needs kids is that some of them need very intensive services that are very costly. You don’t want other parents saying those are unfair because we can’t provide that level of intensity to all kids…though that ugliness periodically rears its head in some communities now.

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