School Quality Matters Most, Whether District or Charter

When it comes to serving students who learn differently or have other special educational needs, we should be most concerned with whether or not the schools they attend have the ability to serve them well. This is what the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act requires, this is what the legally binding Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) specify, and this is what most parents want for their children. Of course, many parents also want to ensure that their child is not marginalized, isolated, or separated from other children. Rather than insisting that a school accept a student, however, we should first seek to ensure that school has the resources and staff to meet the child’s needs.

This is not what is occurring in several cities where school districts have developed choice systems. The data suggest that in many districts, school choice has increased the likelihood that the neediest children—special education students, English language learners, homeless children, and others who are typically low-achieving—will be concentrated in a small number of schools.

Under existing policies that judge schools based on student test scores, schools that serve a disproportionate number of such “high need” students are also more likely to be labeled as failing. Many such schools are more likely to fail not only because they are overwhelmed by their students’ needs, but because in many cases they lack resources to meet their students’ needs and are often staffed by the least-prepared personnel.

This is what has happened over the last 10 years in New York City. A 2009 report by Parthenon Group, a private consulting firm commissioned by the NYC Department of Education, showed that the city’s “failing schools” had enrolled a disproportionate number of “high need” students. Though vague on how the city’s choice system had contributed to the problem, the report implied that because a small number of schools were serving a disproportionate share of “high need’ students, their likelihood of failure had increased. The report also suggested that the problem was related to the fact that many selective public and charter schools were allowed to screen out or counsel out the most disadvantaged children. In explaining why some schools were outperforming others, the report found, “Nearly 80% of variance among individual schools performance can be explained by a few factors, amongst which, enrollment size and concentration of low level students (both ELA and Math) are the most important.”

This report reminds us that it is not only charter schools that may have found ways to avoid serving significant numbers of special education students. Many high-performing public schools employ strategies to screen out such students as well, either by not providing the services needed for special education students, or by employing admissions policies that make it difficult or unlikely for such students to gain access.

Charter schools frequently point to the fact that they admit students based on a lottery to defend themselves against accusations of bias in admissions. Anecdotal evidence obtained from the parents of special education students, however, suggests that in some cases, parents are counseled to take their children out of a school due to a lack of “fit,” or told explicitly that their school of choice lacks the resources to meet the learning needs of their child. While the extent of such practices is difficult to document, there is evidence that the lottery process itself is unlikely to include parents of some of the most disadvantaged children. Parents of undocumented or homeless children, and parents who may be overwhelmed by life circumstances, are less likely to participate in a lottery.

While these are all significant concerns, we should not lose sight of the most important issue: special education students should be in schools—whether public or charter—that have the resources and trained staff to meet their needs.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Nest program at New York University has shown that by providing training and support to teachers who serve children on the autism spectrum, those students can be successfully mainstreamed in local public schools. This has been done effectively at local public schools such as PS 396 in the Bronx, where a significant percentage of children have special needs and all of the students could be characterized as economically disadvantaged. Rather than objecting to the high presence of ASD children, former school principal Lawrence Wright sought to ensure that all of the children who receive special education services were educated in “regular classrooms.” Wright found that the techniques he and his staff utilized for students with learning disabilities help them with other students as well. For example, teachers developed a “visual management” system for autistic children that utilizes pictures posted on cards on the walls to reinforce desired behavior and classroom rules, such as a child with a raised hand and a child looking directly at the teacher. Additionally, teachers at the school report that techniques for teaching letter recognition, such as raised letters made of foam, have also been useful in supporting the literacy of other children.

PS 396 is not alone. Several public schools have demonstrated that mainstreaming special education students can work when the IEP is treated with fidelity and educators are trained to provide necessary services and to plan and collaborate with their non–special education colleagues. But there are many schools across the country where special education students are being denied learning opportunities because support systems are not in place. This is the problem we should be most concerned about.

The issues involving special education students are complex and cannot be addressed through simplistic policies that pit charter schools against public schools or through the laws that now guide special education. These laws make it possible for schools to be in compliance with state and federal policy, even when there is ample evidence that student needs are not being met.

If it is possible to meet the needs of special education students at a public school serving low-income children in the Bronx, it can be done at other public schools and at charter schools, too. Rather than simply demanding that charter schools or specialized public schools accept their “share” of special education students, we should be concerned that all students, particularly students in need of special education, are in schools that can meet their needs. By focusing on the needs of students and the quality of education they receive rather than pointing fingers over where they are served, we will do more to ensure that our most vulnerable children have access to the education they need and deserve.

This article is part of a forum on special education in charter schools. For another take, please see “The Key Is Innovation, Not Regulation,” by Robin J. Lake, or “Charters Should Be Expected to Serve All Kinds of Students,” by Gary Miron.

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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