The Key Is Innovation, Not Regulation

It’s never acceptable for charters to refuse to provide special education services or to “counsel out” or refuse to serve students with disabilities, but it’s a particular problem when charters comprise nearly half of all public schools in a district. In Detroit, where more than 40 percent of students attend charters, traditional district schools are slowly taking on a higher and higher proportion of students with special needs. Concentrating students with disabilities in a certain cluster of schools is not good for kids, and because these students represent higher-than-average costs, this imbalance is not financially sustainable for districts. It’s also not good for the reputation of charter schools to say they serve the neediest students—just not that kind of needy. If charter schools want to be treated as a scalable solution, they have to act like it.

In terms of national averages, the difference between charter and district special-education enrollment is about 3 percentage points: according to the Government Accounting Office, roughly 11 percent of students enrolled in regular public schools were on special education plans in 2009‒10, compared with 8 percent of charter school students. While the national differential is not huge, it concerns some and gives ammunition to others.

The problem is, when lawmakers become concerned about this issue, their instinct is to pass quotas or other special ed enrollment targets for charters, to ensure a “fair share” of students are being served. This is a bad idea, for a number of reasons. There is no magic number that will mean the charter sector has fulfilled its duty to special education, and policy should not be created under this assumption.

First, averages mask variation. The numbers differ greatly by state and city. Some charters serve large percentages of special education students, others very small. The same is true for district schools, as the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found when it analyzed enrollment in New York City. Schools specialize: some are designed specifically for kids with special needs, some have pre-K special-ed programs that feed into certain schools, and so forth. Some schools, both charter and district, tell families that the school may not be a good “fit” for their child or that the school simply doesn’t offer the special education programs or services their child needs. A fair-share policy, then, should be applied to both sectors. Even then, a quota pegged to the average would be impossible to achieve without drawing some students away from specialized programs that may be serving them perfectly well.

Second, sometimes a low special-education percentage doesn’t mean that a school is failing to serve students with special needs, but that it is serving them without applying the often-overused special-education label. Charter schools frequently make the argument that, as researcher Marcus Winters found in his 2013 study of New York City charters, they are less likely than traditional schools to identify a student as having a disability. Instead of assuming a child is “learning disabled” if she falls behind her peers academically, they might provide intensive tutoring to help the student catch up. Rather than labeling a child with severe behavior problems “emotionally disturbed,” they might create a strong set of schoolwide behavior norms and support their teachers’ use of highly effective classroom-management techniques. Quotas work against these innovations by creating perverse incentives for schools to overidentify students as disabled.

Third, as schools of choice, not all charter schools will be equally attractive to, or effective with, kids with disabilities. A “no excuses” school may be a good fit for students who respond well to a highly structured and very strict culture but not be effective at all for others. Although a school’s “mission” should never be an excuse for a charter school to exclude students whose families feel it is the right fit, we also should not expect that all charter schools will attract an equal number of all types of students.

The right public policy approach, then, is not to set a magic number to ensure that students’ special needs are being met. Rather, it is to make sure that all students have equitable access to all public schools in a city, and to create funding policies and support structures that make it possible for charter schools to serve all students effectively.

Charter school authorizers play an important role in ensuring equitable access. Smart authorizer policies pay attention to a charter’s capacity to serve students with special needs before granting the school permission to open, and then closely monitor its student recruitment efforts and admission practices. If the special education numbers look unusually low, good authorizers try to understand why. States are paying more attention to special education funding formulas to ensure that when a charter school receives a student with special needs, the fair share of that student’s funding follows the student. Local foundations and nonprofits are also investing in local special education supports for charter schools.

Even more promising, cities with large numbers of charter schools, like Denver, New Orleans, and New York City, have built special education collaboratives, co-ops, and financial risk pools so that all charter schools have the capacity to serve all disability categories well. Denver Public Schools has even partnered with its charter schools to create specialized charter-based programs for students with severe disabilities. The hope is that with the right financial resources and supports, Denver charter schools can use their autonomy to find innovative ways to serve severely disabled students even more effectively than the district has.

In New Orleans, schools receive more funding for students with more-severe disabilities. There is an insurance pool to help schools pay for higher-than-usual costs associated with special education. Schools can apply for grants to develop innovative new approaches to special education. One New Orleans KIPP school now has a program designed to serve students with severe or “low-incidence” disabilities. Another school has designed a technology-heavy curriculum for students with special needs.

Cities like Detroit could take a lesson from New Orleans, Denver, and New York by carefully monitoring charter schools to ensure they act on their responsibilities to serve all students. Just as important, city and district leaders should create funding structures and partnerships to make sure that charter school autonomies and entrepreneurialism lead to innovations and improvements in special education.

Let’s remember that fair access to public schools is very important, but so are quality and fit. Parents of students with special needs are often desperate for schools that will work for their student’s unique needs. They often find themselves in a situation where the public schools don’t serve their student well, but the private schools won’t serve them at all. Charter schools offer an important opportunity to meet those parents’ needs. There are now charter schools, like CHIME Institute and Aspire charter schools in California, that set a new standard in special ed inclusion. There are schools that provide specialized and highly effective programs for students with autism, and for those who are hearing impaired, face severe behavior problems, and have learning disabilities. The challenge for policymakers is how to create more of these innovations, not to regulate charter schools back into a district model.

Cities need to stop talking about what’s the “fair share” through the lens of a charter or a district, consider instead what students need, and leverage the right combination of resources to meet that need. Parents whose kids have special challenges don’t care what a school is called. They only care whether there are enough choices available in their city or neighborhood so that their child—and every child—can find a strong fit and receive an excellent public education. City and state leaders can accomplish this by ensuring that charter authorizers are paying attention to recruitment and admission practices, by ensuring that schools are getting their fair share of funding, by giving charter schools access to excellent special-education expertise and networks, and by promoting innovative new approaches through grants and charter–district partnerships.

This article is part of a forum on special education in charter schools. For another take, please see “Charters Should Be Expected to Serve All Kinds of Students,” by Gary Miron, or “School Quality Matters Most, Whether District or Charter,” by Pedro A. Noguera.

This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Lake, R.J., Miron, G., and Noguera, P.A. (2014). Should Charter Schools More Special Education: The key is innovation, not regulation. Education Next, 14(4), 54-61.

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