The (Ableist) Elephant in the Room: New Report Finds Charter Schools Fail Students With Disabilities

Aug 7, 2023 5:56:14 PM


We’re calling out charter schools and charter advocates who espouse a commitment to equity for all marginalized students but who, in practice, appear comfortable failing students with disabilities. Some may feel this sentiment is too harsh, but we have been sitting in this status quo–consistently poor outcomes for students with disabilities–for far too long, and it is time to have a hard conversation. 

Recently, the news cycle featured glowing reports of new research released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. Charter advocates across the country celebrated charter schools outperforming traditional public schools. Receiving far less attention was this disappointing finding:

On average, students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools lose 13 days of reading growth and 14 days of math compared to their peers with disabilities attending traditional public schools.  

Charter advocates are not alone in marginalizing students with disabilities. Rarely a week goes by when there is not a major story regarding a school district failing students with disabilities. See, for example, recent reports about NYC punishing outspoken parents of students with disabilities and Chicago Public School restraining and secluding students. Ableism predominates both sectors: as a society, we are all comfortable accepting low expectations and outcomes for students with disabilities.

CREDO’s research details impressive growth and overall outcomes in the public charter school sector compared to traditional public schools, and this is significant for families searching for high-quality learning options. Specifically, demographic subgroups (e.g., students of color and English learners) demonstrated encouraging growth, outpacing their peers in traditional public schools in reading and math. This is especially true in the 1,000 "gap-busting" schools identified by CREDO. These findings prove that charter authorizers and funders are committed to adapting to the needs of students and continuously improving practices.

However, as the leader of an organization dedicated to promoting educational equity and opportunity for students with disabilities and a practitioner who has dedicated their career to improving students' academic outcomes, it is impossible for us to ignore the lagging performance of students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools. The vast majority of students with disabilities can learn on grade level and achieve the same outcomes as their non-disabled peers. CREDO’s findings are particularly disconcerting, given charters educate fewer students with disabilities overall and fewer with highly specialized needs. This is unacceptable and reflects ableist beliefs contributing to persistently low expectations.

To be viable for all families and overcome political resistance, the charter sector must acknowledge its shortcomings in providing equal access and quality instruction to students with disabilities and commit to improving both. Having devoted the last 25 years to supporting these goals, we acknowledge there are systemic challenges, but there are also solutions.

Charter schools can leverage their autonomy to creatively meet the needs of students by meaningfully engaging families, creating instructional environments that embrace universal design, ensuring teachers are trained to differentiate instruction, and providing effective specialized instruction and support.

Employing these tactics would reflect a relentless commitment to equity for all and an unwavering belief in success for all students. We celebrate the charter schools that are walking the walk today. This is far more a matter of will than skill. 

We commend CREDO for conducting this impactful study and applaud charter school leaders and educators on their continued progress. However, as Macke Raymond from CREDO noted, charter schools must be “taken to task” for the collective failure of students with disabilities. We urge policymakers, authorizers, educators, and funders to use these findings to inform efforts toward expanding successful educational practices so that they are inclusive and accessible for all students.

Charter schools will never really earn the praise they are receiving and seeking until they also embrace and meet the challenge of providing quality education to students with disabilities. And, as a sector, charters can no longer continue to claim commitment to equity when far too many schools continually fail to educate a whole population of students adequately. 

Toni Barton & Lauren Morando Rhim

Toni Barton is the founder of Spelligent and host of the upcoming podcast, School Disrupted. She is a national thought leader on inclusive education, having trained hundreds of leaders across the country on inclusive educational practices, coached state level leaders, authored several articles on the topic, and is a contributing author of an upcoming book on inclusive principal leadership. She has worked in district and charter schools serving in roles such as director, principal and special education teacher. Lauren Morando Rhim is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The Center for Learner Equity (CLE), where she provides strategic vision and oversight on projects and advocacy efforts. Lauren’s recent work includes examining the challenges of developing equitable special education funding formulas, and developing a strategic city-based framework for effectively and efficiently educating students with disabilities. Lauren comes to this work with a commitment to social justice and a belief that we can make public schools work for ALL learners.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...