Special Report

Charters: An Uneasy Fit

By Caroline Hendrie — January 08, 2004 8 min read
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Tailored for children with autism, the Princeton House Charter School in center-city Orlando is exempt from the A-to-F state system of school grading that strikes fear in so many Florida educators’ hearts. But don’t think Carol Tucker is unaccountable for results.

As the principal of a school of choice, Tucker has someone to answer to: Princeton House would be out of business if the parents of its 190 students decided to pull their children out.

On a more nuts-and-bolts level, though, there’s the raft of performance targets laid out in the schools’ charter from the Orange County school district. A “compliance monitor” from the district’s special education office is assigned to see that the school meets those goals, as well as the complex web of federal, state, and local requirements that flow from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Some of these kids have 25 pages of IEP goals,” says Tucker, referring to the individualized education plans required for students with disabilities under the IDEA. “We have a lot of rules and regulations we have to follow.”

The idea of breaking free from rules and regulations has been near and dear to the charter school movement since it got rolling in the early 1990s. Yet what many charter schools have discovered, often the hard way, is that the IDEA is one piece of red tape that they simply can’t cut.

“Here’s this highly prescriptive, process-oriented law that kind of hits them in the facet says Elizabeth A. Giovannetti, the vice president for education program design at New American Schools, a nonprofit school improvement organization in Alexandria, Va., and an expert on students with disabilities in charter schools. “They are out there to open new doors to learning. But it’s like, ‘Don’t get too excited; you’ve got to do all these little things, in this order, for this group of kids.’”

Ensuring that charter schools get all those things done has proved to be a challenge not just for the schools themselves, but also for the states and districts where the independent but publicly financed schools have taken root.

“Autonomy versus regulation is the basic tension,” says Eileen M. Ahearn, who has studied how charter schools serve youngsters with disabilities as the project director for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Complicating matters is the marked variety from state to state over such issues as whether charter schools are considered their own local education agencies for special education purposes or are under the wing of school districts. Just who is responsible for what in serving special education students in charter schools is sometimes unclear, and sorting matters out is often made harder by the chilly relations between charter and other public schools in many states and communities.

“Special education has been implemented for over 25 years in regular public schools, and now we have charter schools that have to hit the ground running and deal with things that they probably never thought they would have to deal with,” Ahearn says. “This is the one mandated area that no one can avoid.”

Dearth of Data

Little hard information exists to compile a national scorecard, or even state-level ones in most cases, on how well the nation’s 3,000 charter schools are meeting the needs of children with disabilities.

A federally commissioned study found that in 2000-01, roughly 12 percent of charter school students had IEPs, a figure close to the nearly 13 percent of students enrolled in special education programs nationwide that year. But less is known about the achievement levels of students with disabilities in charter schools, partly because the number of such children in individual charter schools often is too small to be broken out.

“When we look at students with special needs, there’s really not a whole lot of information,” says Dean Kern, the director of the US. Department of Education’s charter schools program.

Still, researchers studying the intersection of charter schools and special education have found some national patterns.

With their smaller-than-average size, for example, charter schools often confront capacity problems not experienced by many district-run schools. And as schools of choice, they present challenges to a national special education system grounded in the principle that parents and education professionals share decisionmaking authority through the IEP teams required by federal law.

Among the many types of charter schools are those that have made serving children with special needs their primary mission. Here in Florida’s Orange County, for instance, Tucker’s school is just one of seven charter schools tailored to children with disabilities. Another two of the county’s 16 charter schools enroll many students with disabilities, with a goal of educating them alongside their peers without disabilities.

Yet most charter schools do not cater to children requiring special education, and by many accounts, those schools have a mixed record in responding to such youngsters’ needs. In some places, charter schools and the agencies that authorize them have devoted close attention to the issue.

For instance, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Cooperative offers training and promotes collaborative approaches to special education in Washington’s flourishing charter sector, in a manner akin to the regional special education agencies that have long served school districts.

At the same time, many charter schools are floundering when it comes to special education. “There are hundreds of charter schools that are saying, ‘We give up,’ and they just aren’t even attempting to provide services,” says Kern, a strong supporter of charter schools.

To him, that suggests a need for charter operators to rethink their approaches toward children with disabilities, and for special educators to consider new ways of holding charter schools accountable for serving them.

“Maybe we’re trying to fit charter schools into a framework that needs to be changed,” Kern says.

Degrees of Separation

From her sixth-story corner office in the 152,000- student Orange County district’s high-rise headquarters here in Orlando, special education chief Harriet P. Brown-Birk tries to keep a close eye on the district’s 16 charter schools.

“The charters have the choice to do a lot of innovative things,” says Brown-Birk, a lawyer who specialized in IDEA cases when in private practice. “But you don’t get a choice if it’s a federal mandate.”

There are hundreds of charter schools saying, ‘We give up,’ and they just aren’t even attempting to provide services.”

Despite their watchdog role, Brown-Birk and her staff generally get good marks from local charter operators. “We have a compliance monitor who is very helpful,” says Princeton House’s Tucker.

That kind of collaboration comes more easily in Florida than in some other states, in part because charter schools are considered part of their local districts instead of their own local education agencies. By many accounts, LEA status--largely determined by state law--is a critical factor in how charter schools approach special education.

If a charter school is considered its own local agency, as is the case in many states, it must arrange and pay for the services needed by the children with disabilities that it enrolls, according to a 2001 study by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

That obligation can even involve picking up the tab for placing its students in private educational programs, just as a school district might have to do, notes the study, called “Project SEARCH: Special Education as Requirements in Charter Schools.”

For that and other reasons, the study recommended that the status of charter schools as free-standing local education agencies “be reconsidered for purposes of special education.”

In Arizona, where charter schools are considered their own local agencies, the state special education office has been stretched thin as it tries to keep tab on the state’s nearly 500 charter schools.

“Before the charter school movement, we monitored 15 to 20 school districts a year,” says Lynn M. Busenbark, the Arizona education department’s director of program support for exceptional-student services. “We now do 85 to 100 LEAs a year.”

To help manage that caseload, the state now requires new charter operators to receive training on special education, and it pays outside mentors to follow up with each school.

The education department’s special education staff has also worked closely with the Arizona State Board· for Charter Schools to make sure that charter applicants spell out in detail how they will approach special education, a requirement that is becoming increasingly common in other states.

In the Sunshine State, meanwhile, charter schools often turn to the Florida Charter School Resource Center for guidance in managing special education.

Housed at the University of South Florida in Tampa, the state-supported center receives federal IDEA money and is headed by Cathy Wooley-Brown, a former special education director in the Polk County, Fla., school district. The technical-assistance center makes special education a priority in the training and other resources it offers the state’s charter schools. According to state education department data, more than 260 charter schools are open and operating in Florida. In one workshop during the 2002-03 school year, for instance, the center brought together Orange County compliance monitors and staff members from local charter schools.

“I don’t think charter schools are saying we don’t want those regulations,” says Wooley-Brown, who is active nationally on the issue of special education in charter schools. “I think they’re trying to find a way to balance all those requirements against running a little, itty-bitty school.”

However elusive that balance might be, some experts believe that striking it is crucial, if charter schools are going to offer viable options for some of the country’s most vulnerable children.

“What we want is to be able to really take advantage of the independence of charter schools to be creative,” says Giovannetti of New American Schools. “But if we don’t shore up the ability of charter schools to do that, then we curtail their ability to fully serve students with disabilities in ways that a regular public school system may not be able to.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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