Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Charters and Special Education

February 09, 2010 6 min read
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To the Editor:

Thomas Hehir’s attacks on California charter schools’ special education programs (“Charters: Students With Disabilities Need Not Apply?,” Commentary, Jan. 27, 2010) demonstrate an unfortunate lack of in-depth understanding of the state’s special education infrastructure. He largely blames charters for underserving students with disabilities, while, in reality, California’s system is designed to put primary responsibility on the local district, whether a student attends a charter school or a traditional public school.

In California, districts largely maintain control of special education programs and funding, requiring charters to fit into their mold. The district controls service delivery, data-collection and -reporting procedures, and funding.

In San Diego, for example, the district keeps all the special education funding, charges charter schools an additional $700 per student, and provides services that are mass-produced and unreliable. As a result, a number of San Diego charters have formed a consortium to fulfill the full federal continuum of services and operate their own special education programs, autonomously from the district.

Mr. Hehir applauds large districts’ “well-developed special education departments.” Yet Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district, operates under an 18-year-old federal court order for its failure to comply with federal special education law. The decree stems, in part, from its overidentification of students as having special needs.

Los Angeles and San Diego continue to identify special education students at a much higher rate than other districts in the state that have adopted programs focusing on inclusion and intensive classroom-based supports.

Although it is a fact glossed over by Mr. Hehir, charter schools should be praised, not vilified, for a conservative approach to labeling students as “special needs.” In the small, innovative, and outcomes-driven classrooms of a charter school, every student has an opportunity to flourish. That is a cornerstone of the movement.

Charter schools and special education policymakers in California have recently taken a big step toward assuring that charters are able to assume increasing responsibility for special education. The board of education-adopted plan, based on a three-year pilot, will make it easier for charters to achieve “local education agency” status for special education. This will give them both greater autonomy in efforts to serve the full continuum of students, and the necessary funds to do so effectively.

Jed Wallace

President and CEO
California Charter Schools Association
Sacramento, Calif.

To the Editor:

Thomas Hehir’s recent Commentary on special education in charter schools raises a critical issue, but does not address its inherent complexities. We have been doing research and providing technical assistance related to special education in charters for over 10 years. As longtime advocates of ensuring that students with disabilities have access to charter schools, we are pleased that Mr. Hehir is drawing attention to this topic, but we believe his oversimplification of it runs the risk of spurring policies that would do more harm than good.

Two key points that have emerged from our research should be highlighted:

1. To understand school-level enrollment data, one must examine charter school information relative to individual neighborhood schools, as opposed to entire districts, because embedded in the district numbers are specialized, center-based special education programs. Using districtwide averages is misleading.

Absent clear evidence of systemic discrimination, it is arguably irresponsible to charge the entire charter sector with denying access to students with disabilities, as implied by the essay’s provocative title, “Charters: Students With Disabilities Need Not Apply?” In fact, Mr. Hehir even acknowledges that most charter school leaders “want to serve students with disabilities.”

2. The practical realities of school choice decisionmaking for parents of students with severe disabilities must be put in a historical context. Special education programs in traditional districts have been developed over more than 30 years, and meeting the needs of such students requires a well-established array of resources. Unless parents are dissatisfied with the current services, they are unlikely to enroll their children in charters. Thus, it is not prudent to jump to a conclusion that students with severe disabilities are being kept out of charters, when it may be an artifact of satisfaction with their current educational settings.

Mr. Hehir suggests that government agencies should consider intervening through monitoring and reducing charter funds. Our research has shown that arming authorizers with needed information and resources is far more effective, since this can prevent problems related to charter schools’ serving students with disabilities. It is critical to understand these and many other policy and system issues before drawing any conclusions about the need for corrective actions.

Eileen Ahearn

National Association of State Directors of Special Education
Alexandria, Va.

Beth Giovannetti

Educational Support Systems Inc.
New Orleans, La.

Cheryl Lange

Lange Research Evaluation
Bloomington, Minn.

To the Editor:

It is important that Thomas Hehir has raised the issue of equal access to charter schools for children with disabilities. As states strive to grow the charter sector, under bold initiatives directed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, we must ensure that charters are open to all students. Yet, in building his argument on statistics absent of context, Mr. Hehir has obscured rather than clarified.

To begin with, his statistics related to enrollment fail to acknowledge that children with disabilities are not uniformly distributed across traditional public schools. District enrollment figures include not only students enrolled in neighborhood schools, but also those enrolled in home- and hospital-bound, private/public residential, and restrictive, center-based placements. A more appropriate analysis would be to compare enrollment in individual charter schools with that in nearby traditional public schools.

Mr. Hehir also implies that apparently imbalanced enrollment is solely a reflection of discriminatory policies applied by charters, as opposed to an amalgam of decisions made by parents, students, and, in the case of children with disabilities, teams of professionals charged with determining the best placement for students. When charters operate as part of a district, that district is a key factor in whether children with disabilities enroll in such schools.

Mr. Hehir acknowledges that charters want to educate students with disabilities, but lack necessary supports. Rather than advocating for additional monitoring or withholding reimbursements, the essay’s first two recommendations to policymakers, I wholly support the third, to provide such assistance. Heavy federal, compliance-based practices could paralyze rather than support new charter schools. Authorizers need to consistently engage in more-rigorous application reviews to ensure that new charter operators are prepared to educate all children. Thereafter, based on their already established responsibility to monitor their schools, authorizers should assess whether they are enrolling students with disabilities and providing quality special education, as part of existing charter school accountability mechanisms.

Lauren Morando Rhim

LMR Consulting
Norwich, Vt.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Charters and Special Education

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