Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools
Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O'Neill
Roughly 13 percent of students enrolled in public schools have a disability that qualifies them to receive support services under the umbrella of special education and related services. The majority of these students can be expected to achieve on par with their peers who do not require additional supports. And the most recent CREDO report found that across the states analyzed, students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools outperformed their peers in mathematics. Provision of special education and related services in public charter schools has been an ongoing source of debate since the sector’s inception: Where do these new, autonomous schools fit in the topography of public schools under federal special education requirements? And are public charter schools welcoming students with diverse learning needs? While much of the debate has been influenced by single-case anecdotes and hyperbole, where there is smoke there is often fire. The charter sector needs to proactively address concerns related to access and provision of quality services for students with disabilities.
This report explores the relevant legal framework that shapes special education in the charter sector; outlines both the challenges and opportunities presented by state public charter school laws that create autonomous schools that operate separate from or alongside traditional public school districts; and identifies key accountability structures. Efforts to change the dynamics must focus on (1) creating quality programs that attract a diverse array of students and (2) holding accountable charter schools that fall short, by design or default, of welcoming and supporting students with disabilities. Based on legal actions in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and anecdotes from other cities where access and service provision are increasingly under a microscope, charter schools that fail to chart an intentional course related to students with disabilities may be subject to cumbersome regulatory burdens advanced by charter opponents. However, public charter schools do not need to wait until required to improve their approach to educating students with disabilities. The following actions can help operators and support organizations proactively ensure that their schools not only welcome but also create exceptional opportunities for all students, including students with disabilities.
1. Advocate To Address Policy Barriers
Public charter schools face barriers stemming from idiosyncratic state charter statutes, policies, and traditional district practices (e.g., inequitable funding, unclear delegation of responsibility and authority, and limited access to critical special education infrastructures). Rather than passively accept these barriers, charter operators and support organizations can form coalitions and mobilize parents to advocate for policy changes in the best interests of students with disabilities.
2. Adopt Key Instructional Strategies To Support All Students
Best practices such as preschool; Universal Design for Learning; and robust Response to Intervention programs that have a laser sharp focus on early literacy, quality instruction, targeted interventions, and progress monitoring benefit all students, particularly students with disabilities with diverse learning needs.
3. Identify Strategic Partnerships and Coalitions
Many public charter schools are small, have limited budgets, and lack key institutional routines and structures. While these conditions are challenging, they create an environment that is ripe for entrepreneurial innovation. Strategic partnerships with other public charter schools, existing community organizations (e.g., mental health providers), and even traditional public schools can build and extend charter schools’ capacity related to special education.
4. Hire Intentionally and Well
Due primarily to small school size, many public charter school employees need to be able to wear multiple hats. Consequently, the value of individual employees is amplified—public charter schools must hire exceedingly well. Hiring intentionally requires a clear understanding of how a particular position fits within the broader school puzzle. It also may require being creative about job descriptions to fully leverage individual teachers’ and administrators’ unique skills. Providing differentiated supports to students with diverse learning needs depends on hiring skilled employees who not only understand special education law, but also, more important, understand how to accommodate individual students’ needs.
5. Track, Analyze, and Report Data
Much of the dialogue regarding special education in the charter sector is driven by anecdotes and outliers, but data are essential to a reasoned conversation. Public charter school operators and support groups can pre-empt potentially cumbersome demands from opponents by proactively collecting and reporting data regarding special education.
6. Own and Address Shortcomings
To date, enough public charter schools have fallen short in enrolling and effectively serving students with disabilities that acknowledging and addressing these shortcomings is important to change the dialogue about special education in the sector. In particular, public charter schools that have struggled to attract and retain students need to engage qualified personnel, parents, and local special education advocates to enhance their programs and improve their reputations in the special education community. Public charter schools need to own and address perceptions, and in some cases, real shortcomings, to attract students.