Individualized Education Plan

A Look at Charter Schools and Students With Disabilities

Today is national Special Education Day, which is an excellent time to discuss what we know about charter schools and students with disabilities (SWD). In my own family, we recently celebrated my son’s transition out of his individualized education program (IEP). That was a big deal for him! We are all very proud of his growth and accomplishments. But it doesn’t mean his hard work is over; it just changes. I think the charter sector is also ready for a transition of its own. I am looking forward to that, too. I hope we can move past tired debates about whether charter schools should, can or do serve students with disabilities. Certainly, there are some charter schools that are not welcoming or appropriately serving these students. There is still much work to do on that front. And it is not just the charter schools that need to stay on the ball. Their authorizers, state departments of education and local school districts all collectively share responsibility, and each has room to improve. But today, what is needed to move us forward is a deeper understanding of what is happening—not another round of myths and finger-pointing.

What Have We Learned?

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) recently released an important report, Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools. The center, whose board of directors I chair, is itself a relatively new player to this field. But it has made strong strides right out the gate. The report generated a little buzz, as it was used to inform the debate between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and charter defenders about whether or not most charter schools serve hard-to-teach kids. The bottom line is that Hillary’s allegation was inaccurate. Charter schools do serve hard-to-teach kids, and most of them don’t push them out. That includes kids with IEPs. The center compiled data from a huge federal data set. Charters serve proportions of students with disabilities at rates close to traditional public schools: 12.55 percent in traditional public schools compared to 10.42 percent in charter schools. That gap has shrunk recently and there are reasons why we may not want it to get to zero. For one thing, research demonstrates that charter schools may be avoiding the overidentification of children; or, a successful school can keep a child performing at levels that make later identification unnecessary. Still, we need to know more about these issues, and I believe that the gap can and should continue to decline in the coming years. At least in a few cities, charter schools also do a good job of keeping their students with disabilities. There is mounting evidence that they don’t push them out. In fact, data shows that charter schools retain special education students at rates slightly higher than traditional public schools. The center’s study also found that charter schools are more likely to serve these students in more inclusive settings than traditional public schools. Charters place 84 percent of students in inclusive settings for at least 80 percent of the day, while traditional public schools do so at 67 percent. Given the desire for more inclusion, that could be a good thing. Or, it could mean that charters have difficulty providing a more restrictive environment (if that is what is appropriate for a particular child). Again, we need to know more to better understand what this means.

Moving Forward

There are also some interesting innovations taking place. For example, the center identified 115 charter schools across the country that focus primarily or entirely on students with disabilities. Plenty of stakeholders who are committed to better outcomes for kids with disabilities disagree about what that means. For every parent eager to find a school that focuses on their child’s type of challenge, there are others who remember and still fight efforts to push children with disabilities into separate, dramatically unequal facilities. I remain interested in learning a great deal more about these schools, what their students are learning, what they are learning themselves as institutions and what their students and their families think about them. Now is the time to transition to new questions like these. I’m eager to celebrate progress and to honor and acknowledge the hard work by so many people working on these issues. There are still lots of questions to ask and hard work to be done but it doesn’t have to be the same questions or the same work.  
Alex Medler is Senior Director of the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) with Safal Partners. Medler is a national expert on charter school policy who has worked in education reform since the earliest days of the charter movement. Through Safal Partners, Medler also advises foundations, state education agencies, charter authorizers and other clients in the U.S. and overseas. Prior to ...

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