RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With traditional public schools, where a family lives determines where a child will go to school. Charter schools were supposed to give people a choice. But that choice isn't always an option for some students with disabilities. That's the finding of an investigation by the NPR StateImpact Florida project and the Miami Herald. Reporter Sarah Gonzalez has more.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Like a lot of 17-year-old boys, high school for Tres Whitlock isn't just about what happens in the classroom. It's also about girls.
Do you have a crush?
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GONZALEZ: Tres has cerebral palsy. He can't walk or speak. But like any embarrassed teenager, he laughs.
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GONZALEZ: Does she go to your school?
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GONZALEZ: Tres communicates by typing on a computer that generates a voice to tell us his future career.
TRES WHITLOCK: (Through computer voice generator) A game programmer.
GONZALEZ: A game programmer. Right now, he's creating an iPod app so kids with disabilities can decorate and race virtual wheelchairs. Tres is a computer whiz. So when a charter school opened up near Tampa with an emphasis on computers, Tres had to apply. But when his family went for a tour of Pivot Charter School Tres says the principal told him: You can't come here.
Do you know why - what they told you?
TRES WHITLOCK: (Through computer voice generator) I can't go the bathroom by myself.
GONZALEZ: Tonya Whitlock is Tres's mom. She says that's not fair.
TONYA WHITLOCK: The medications that Tres is on, he doesn't go to the bathroom very often. But if he has to go, there needs to be somebody there. And that was our only request that we did ask for. It's like we're begging people to just please let him go to your school.
GONZALEZ: They've been fighting to get him into Pivot Charter School for the past five months. The school's principal is Carmela David. She wouldn't talk about Tres specifically, or agree to be recorded. She says her school does serve some students with disabilities. But records show that no students with Tres' level of needs go to Pivot.
And that's typical for most Florida charter schools. StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald analyzed enrollment data on kids with severe disabilities - like Tres; kids with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism. Our investigation found that more than 85 percent of Florida charter schools don't have a single student with a severe disability. That's compared to half of traditional public schools.
Take Jacksonville, Florida. There are more than a thousand students in that district with a severe disability. One attends a charter school. Other counties don't have any such students.
THOMAS HEHIR: If we had similar patterns of exclusion of kids by gender or race, I think there would be much more outrage then there is.
GONZALEZ: That's Thomas Hehir. Back in the Clinton administration, he was the top official in charge of special education, and he helped rewrite federal disability law.
HEHIR: I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they do cost more money to educate.
GONZALEZ: For instance, Miami Dade is Florida's largest school district, and state funding only covers about 60 percent the cost of educating a severely disabled student. State and federal laws say no school - traditional or charter - is allowed to turn away kids because it's too expensive to educate them. But there's a loophole. The law also says students with severe disabilities can only go to schools that provide the services they need.
And our investigation found that most Florida charter schools do not offer those services. Adam Miller oversees charter schools at the Florida Department of Education. He says the traditional public school system has had decades to coordinate their programs and share special-ed teachers. But charter schools haven't gotten there yet, because each charter school operates on its own.
ADAM MILLER: It would be challenging for a single school to set up a program for a single student - which, I think, is why you see that for the most part, that doesn't happen.
GONZALEZ: It didn't happen for Belkys Vigil and her son, David, in Miami. He's 7 and has autism. Vigil says she tried to enroll David in several Miami charter schools because students are supposed to get one-on-one attention. But she says they all told her the same thing.
BELKYS VIGIL: Oh, we don't take him; we don't have the facilities for a special-needs child. Nobody. The tears that I would cry because of the rejection - it was constant.
GONZALEZ: Now, David is going to a private school, and his parents have to pay thousands of dollars a year. And remember Tres, the teenager with cerebral palsy? He's now going to a traditional public school that has a program for kids with autism. And his mom says he doesn't even have autism.
TONYA WHITLOCK: We had to compromise. We had to settle with an environment that we knew wasn't absolutely the best for him because we didn't have any other choices.
GONZALEZ: Tres says he desperately wants to be with regular kids.
TRES WHITLOCK: (Through computer voice generator) I want to prove to them that I can be in normal classes.
GONZALEZ: And the girl Tres has a crush on, she's in one of those normal classes. But he's off in a different part of the school, so he's never had the chance to tell her how he feels.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in Miami.
MONTAGNE: And reporter John O'Connor, also with the project StateImpact Florida, contributed to that report.