In my previous life as a legal aid lawyer, I worked on a case that showed me why enrollment statistics shouldn’t be used to determine whether public schools are serving special education students well. I was at a meeting in Newark, New Jersey, advocating for a fifth-grader with special needs. On one side of the table was the boy’s mother and me. Sitting across from us was a phalanx of highly-trained education professionals with advanced degrees and their lawyer. The student’s mother wanted to know why her boy was falling further and further behind. She said his special education program wasn’t challenging him enough and wanted to know why her son couldn’t do grade-level work after six years of special education. I then asked, “Why was this student classified as learning disabled in the first place?” My question was met with blank stares. It became clear the people responsible for his education didn’t know the root cause or the nature of his limitations. Eventually, one of his former teachers was called into the meeting. She told us that the student “just needed a little help in math.” Evaluations done six years earlier showed some delays in his math skills, but no one bothered to monitor his progress since or even ask whether he belonged there to begin with. The boy’s mother and I looked at each other in shock. For almost six years, the boy had been classified as learning disabled, relegated to lower expectations and less-challenging coursework. He met every new year and every new teacher carrying an IEP (individualized education plan) that acted like a scarlet letter (or three). There were assumptions and biases made about his academic ability and intellect, when all he really needed back then was a little extra help.
He’s Not the Only One
This kind of treatment is nothing short of a human rights violation. And my research found that this boy’s case was not an isolated one. Low-income children of color are
disproportionately classified as special education students. There are many reasons for this:
Subconscious bias about the abilities of students of color;
Financial incentives to classify students because of school funding formulas that provide more funding for special education students and;
Plain old bureaucratic inertia of the kind I saw.
Using This Against Charter Schools
Demographic quotas for charters in the name of equity are the latest policy cudgel of choice pushed by teachers union bosses in states all over the country. New York is a case study in how that happens. For years, state teachers unions have had unprecedented influence over the State Assembly's Democratic majority. The United Federation of Teachers made very clear that it was going to push legislation that undermined charters on enrollment policies. Sure enough, when the Assembly's budget proposal was unveiled, an 11-page screed against charters was on the table. The bill would have shut down charter schools by taking away their funding for failure to meet ridiculous quotas—even for one quarter of a school year. Our research shows that the
vast majority of district schools don’t even meet the current quotas. Yet they think charters should? These quotas compel charters to mirror the very same segregation that exists in their local district schools, instead of leaving room for socioeconomically diverse charters to integrate classrooms and communities. Charter advocates were successful in beating back
an eleventh-hour effort to advance the quotas, thankfully—but that doesn’t mean they won’t be back. These kinds of quotas are being pushed across the country and charter schools are forced to spend too much of their time fighting off politically-motivated, turf-protecting policy hits that do nothing to help educate kids.
Charter Schools Are Serving Special-Needs Students
It’s time to find new ways to evaluate how well charters are serving special-needs students. We should be incorporating more qualitative measures. Because charter schools are schools of choice and cannot control who enter their lotteries, we should focus oversight on making sure that they use good faith efforts to enroll and retain high-need students. Charters should be pushed to offer a wider array of special education programs when they have the resources and scale to do so (while acknowledging that this may not be an option for smaller charters or specialized charters). Authorizers should bring in outside experts to evaluate the strength of special education programs at charter schools. The biggest shift should be toward a greater focus on judging results. How well are charter schools serving students with disabilities who no longer need the services? How do charter students fare in testing compared to students in similar disability categories? Are students meeting the learning benchmarks in their personalized education plans? And we need to stop comparing district-wide
averages of students with disabilities to
individual charter schools—the averages hide extreme variation among schools and we should do school-to-school comparisons whenever necessary. Changing the policy conversation would give us a far more sophisticated and fair way to evaluate charter schools and their special education programs. That is, if we really care about preparing every single student to reach their highest potential, instead of finding new ways to play gotcha with charter school educators.
Kyle Rosenkrans is CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, which advocates for charter schools in New York and Connecticut, and was former civil rights attorney who has represented hundreds of parents and children in matters involving special education and disability law.