Levi Cavener 

Teaching students with special needs and how Idaho charter schools can accommodate them

Teaching is a passion. Teaching students with disabilities is doubly so. Levi Cavener, an instructor at Vallivue High School in Caldwell, has been a special education instructor for five years. As an undergraduate at the University of Idaho, he spent time abroad through the Camp Adventure program, exploring Europe with children whose parents were serving in the military. One child lost a parent during Cavener's time in the program and he described others as "genuinely alone," not hearing from parents for weeks on end. Those experiences helped ignite his passion for education.

Since then, Cavener has instructed children with special needs and circumstances. He is an advocate of ESL and minority students, students from low-income families, and students with cognitive impairments and traumatic brain injuries, which extends beyond the classroom. Cavener has published op-eds and analyses in local media pushing for Idaho charter school reform, and he's the founder and editor of Idaho's Promise, an unincorporated nonprofit that advocates for equitable education in Idaho's public schools.

Cavener took some time away from educating kids to educate Boise Weekly on charter schools and the struggle for equitable access to schooling.

We have specific benchmarks for general education kids. Are there similar benchmarks for special ed kids?

Every kid is on something called an "individualized education plan." Every kiddo is unique, so every kid's going to get something kind of different. In addition to that, the bulk of special kids are also required to take the statewide exams, which now is the SBAC/ISAT 2.0 [State Balanced Assessment Consortium/Idaho Standards Achievement Test] and you can imagine kids with disabilities having some frustrations taking that exam. Earlier, when the tiered licensure stuff was still in the works, there was an attempt to merge teacher certification with student test scores, which, for a special educator, is, like, a nightmare.

It sounds like what you actually do and what the Legislature thinks you do are at odds.

Usually when the state is crafting legislation, it's looking at the general education population, and they're not necessarily keeping special ed kiddos or English-language learner kiddos in mind.

You wrote an op-ed for the Idaho Statesman discussing what could be termed the "blind spots" of our charter school system.

I was worried that charter schools weren't providing the services that they should be. So I put in a Freedom of Information [Act] request, and I got back the data, and it became very apparent that if you compare the population of a charter school to the surrounding school district that it operates out of, there was a wild disparity in minority populations. If you take those statistics and put them side by side with charters, almost without exception these kids are left out of these schools.

Why do you think that's the case?

What's supposed to happen for a charter that has more applications than seats available is that you conduct a lottery. Theoretically, if your lottery was demographically representative, you would have a demographically representative population; but preferences can be given to kids of founders of the school, children of employees working at the school, if a student already has a sibling at the school, and any student who has attended a charter school before. If you have teachers and staff who are overwhelmingly white, by the time you get through the founders and kids of teachers, you're going to replicate that same incoming class—fairly white, English speaking.

Unequal lotteries can't be the whole story.

Charters don't have to offer transportation. So especially if you're a low-income family, maybe have a free or reduced-lunch student, the odds of you actually having a choice to attend that charter vanish pretty quickly. On a similar note, charter schools are not required to offer free and reduced-lunch programs. If you're a low-income family relying on the free and reduced-price lunch program, you probably aren't going to enroll your kid because those services are going to disappear.

What about services inside the classroom?

We aren't creating true services for minority instruction—that would include a bona fide special ed teacher, school psychologist, speech pathologist—all those special services that should be in a school to help those kids with special needs. Largely, those services are absent from the charter school or the charter school contracts with surrounding districts to provide them. In my opinion, that results in bringing a special ed teacher to come over and do paperwork compliance.

How does this affect conventional schools?

When a charter doesn't share an equitable burden of minority students and having to provide those minority programs, and the local school district has the disproportionate burden of providing services to those students, the local school district raises a levy, which means that property owners are being taxed inequitably because a charter isn't providing an equitable portion of those services.

On May 18, Centro de Comunidad y Justicia filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education along those lines. What was your involvement in that complaint?

I had shown them some of the data I had got myself. They were flabbergasted. These are public schools: These are schools that your tax dollars and my tax dollars pay for.

The complaint makes a list of demands. Can you comment on those?

The two biggest things that charter schools can immediately do to be more inclusive is make sure they make transportation available for their students, particularly for low-income students. Along that same line, all charter schools need to be offering free and reduced-cost lunches. If they don't do that, you're effectively excluding that population from your school. They also call for a report on student demographic data. This is the first time in the Idaho Public Charter School Commission's history that it has delivered an annual report. Let's make policy decisions based on logic.

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