Seattle Public Schools’ maddening ‘Blank Stare of Bureaucracy’

Two years ago, my son took a battery of tests at the expense of Seattle Public Schools qualifying him for a special program. When we inquired a few weeks ago about enrolling him, we were surprised to be told that he wouldn’t be able to participate because we hadn’t submitted a form back in the fall to apply for another set of testing.

Two months and a long string of email exchanges later, everyone agrees that my son didn’t actually need any additional testing. But he still would not be admitted because there is only one process, and “no exceptions.” There is no appeal or recourse.

As the director of an education think tank focused on national issues, it feels indulgent to write about my own kids’ experiences in the public school system. But there’s no better way to illustrate one of the reasons my organization pursues the work it does on behalf of students.

The ease with which Seattle Public Schools neglects or dismisses the needs of families — through what I call the “blank stare of bureaucracy” — is one of the primary elements driving parents, in this city and throughout the nation, to seek alternatives.

The percentage of children attending private schools in Seattle is more than double the national average. When charter schools come to town, SPS faces even more attrition. If the school system wants to compete — and, more importantly, if it wants to do right by the children who stay — it must adopt a customer service mindset.

There is no SPS form I know of that can be filled out online, and sometimes no dropbox in which to leave forms if you take time off of work to go to the John Stanford Center and find the relevant staff out of the office. There is no way to find out what, say, “Spectrum” means compared to “Advanced Learning Opportunities” without clicking through several schools’ websites and emailing principals — and even then you still might not know.

I know people who are experts in education, but can’t figure out how to make sure their kids can buy milk at lunch.

These are minor inconveniences, though, compared to the flippant way the system responds — or doesn’t — to students’ special needs. No matter how evident it is that your child’s situation merits individual consideration, your inquiries are met by maddening emails that repeat the policy and assert that there are no exceptions.

If, on my first exchange with SPS, I’d been welcomed into the office and told that they couldn’t make an exception to the policy, but wanted to help me find some other way to ensure my son’s learning needs would be met next year, things would have been different. But I wasn't welcomed, and, it turns out, neither were many other parents. Special education services and assignment processes are so opaque (and often illegal) that the Seattle Special Education PTSA recently requested state intervention.

These kind of frustrations underscore why people sometimes turn to charter schools or pay to attend private schools at great cost. Parents want their kids to be in schools and school systems marked by humanity, trust, goodwill and customer service. There are many school districts around the country that have figured out how to be more flexible and responsive, hiring parent advocates and secret shoppers and embracing choice and innovation.

If Seattle Public Schools wants to thrive, and wants its students to thrive, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it needs to start putting students before bureaucracy.

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