To the Editor:
After presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stated in a town-hall meeting in South Carolina that “most charter schools ... don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them," there was a media flurry regarding whether charters enroll and retain such hard-to-teach students, including students with disabilities (“Would Hillary Clinton Be an Anti-Charter-School President?”).
Consider the irony of this narrative, that charters are a scourge because they underserve students with disabilities as part of those hard-to-teach groups. This assumes that traditional public schools are consistently providing a quality education to students with disabilities, which is hardly the situation.
We are 25 years into the evolution of charters, and they are growing for a reason: Parents want options. Not all charters have embraced their responsibilities to students with disabilities, and data also demonstrate that many regular public schools are also failing these students.
However, wide variability in these data tell us that we can do better. There are good and bad schools in both sectors. The variability in student outcomes is the problem that we need to address, not whether charters accept hard-to-teach students.
Advocates committed to students with disabilities can’t afford to pass up opportunities to innovate. The autonomy extended by state charter laws is just that, an opportunity. Politics can oversimplify complicated issues. But students with disabilities seeking a quality education don’t benefit from the scapegoating of charters. Rather than exploiting incidents of discrimination as a weapon to rally opponents against charters, I urge those concerned about students with disabilities to focus on developing thoughtful policies and practices that will ensure equal access and quality programs—two constructs that are intricately connected, regardless of educational setting.
Gross generalizations about school quality may play well for politics, but they fail to advance the important dialogue about promoting excellence and equity for all students.
Lauren Morando Rhim
Executive Director and Co-Founder
National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools
New York, N.Y.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Don’t ‘Scapegoat’ Charters For Failing Students With Disabilities