Special Education

Special Education Charters Renew Inclusion Debate

By Arianna Prothero — September 16, 2014 7 min read
Diana Diaz-Harrison, the founder of the Arizona Autism Charter School in Phoenix, talks with a young student at the school, while Sammy, her son, stands alongside her on the playground. The school is among about 100 charter schools across the country that specialize in serving students with special needs or disabilities.
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Parents go to great lengths to meet the special and often demanding needs of children with disabilities. In Diana Diaz-Harrison’s case, that meant opening a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism—and for other students like him—when she felt his needs weren’t being met in regular district-run schools.

“For my typical daughter, we chose a charter school that specializes in the arts … that meets her needs,” said Ms. Diaz-Harrison. “So for my little boy with autism, what can meet his needs? A school that can help him with his communication, ease his anxieties, help him move forward and make academic progress. We didn’t have a school like that—now we do.”

The school that Ms. Diaz-Harrison opened this year—the 90-student Arizona Autism Charter School—is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities. Such schools help counter the long-running criticism that charters don’t serve enough of those students.

But they also renew questions about the best educational environment for students with disabilities: Is it a specialized school or a more mainstream setting with general education students?

While parents of students with disabilities often push for special charter schools, some experts call those efforts misguided. They point to federal law and related research that prescribe that such students be integrated as much as possible with typically developing peers.

“Within the special education community, there’s a concern about these schools—a worry that they’re concentrating kids with learning disabilities into one school, and they’re not interacting enough with other kids,” said Paul T. O’Neill, the co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, in New York.

There are few data on exactly how many of these special education-focused charter schools exist. A tally by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, counted around 100 such charters in the 2012 school year. Some of those independently operated public schools, like the Arizona Autism Charter School, are disability-specific; others, like the Washington-based Bridges Public Charter School, serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.

Benefits Fuel Demand

Although the number of special-needs charters is small compared to the more than 6,000 charter schools operating nationally, several experts in the charter and special education sectors predict such schools will gain in popularity because they offer a tuition-free option for parents seeking specialized programs.

A student in Ms. Mulvin’s class adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity. The school uses Applied Behavior Analysis, an awards-based approach that is considered effective for students with autism.

The Arizona Autism Charter School filled almost immediately, said Ms. Diaz-Harrison, with some families choosing to move to Arizona from out of state so their children could enroll.

“We have a board-certified behavior analyst on staff. Our whole school is based on ABA strategies,” she said, referring to applied behavioral analysis, an awards-based approach to teaching that is considered helpful for students with autism.

“It’s an expertise in autism rarely found in other schools unless they’re private,” Ms. Diaz-Harrison added.

Other examples of the kind of intensive, specialized services offered by special-needs-focused charters include the Potentials Charter School in Palm Beach County, Fla., which specializes in serving students with cerebral palsy and offers speech and occupational therapy for students who are unable to walk or talk. The Albuquerque Sign Language Academy in New Mexico offers a bilingual program in English and American Sign Language aimed at students with hearing impairments.

Choice vs. Inclusion

In many ways, such schools embody what the school choice movement is about: Charters open up in response to parental demand and gaps in the education marketplace. But there can be a conflict between the ideals of school choice at the heart of state charter laws and the inclusion principle in which federal law is rooted.

“Disabilities-rights advocates envision and work toward a society where people with disabilities are included everywhere: in the workplace, in transportation, and in education,” said Lindsay E. Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington.

“The worry is that we will move back into a separate environment, and there’s a fear that separate is not equal,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s a complicated discussion because parents are choosing it [the special charter school] where it exists.”

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment” that’s appropriate for their needs. Generally, that means alongside their typically developing peers at least some of the time, depending upon the severity of their disabilities.

Charters try to meet the least restrictive environment requirement in different ways. Some recruit a mix of general education and special education students; others promote interactions with nondisabled peers through special programs or clubs.

Brittni Mulvin, a teacher at the Arizona Autism School in Phoenix, leads a combined class of 1st and 2nd grade students. Founded by a parent, the 90-student charter school filled up immediately upon opening this year.

“I think they’re in uncharted territory [legally],” said Ms. Jones of NCLD.

Although many disability-rights advocates embrace the concept of inclusion, it is not without its critics.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

In the case of Arizona Autism Charter School, Ms. Diaz-Harrison said families came to her school because their children were struggling in mainstream programs.

“It’s a huge battle to get some of those supports in place, so it’s understandable that people would opt for a school that already has all of that built in,” she said. “One argument against our model is that the kids don’t have as much access to typical peers. Most of our families selected our school because the benefits outweigh the risks.”

Special Education Gap

Conversely, some charter models, such as Bridges, focus on inclusion. The school works to maintain a 30-70 split between special and general education students. But Bridges’ director Olivia A. Smith also said maintaining that mix can be difficult due to the unpredictability of parental choice and admissions lotteries.

Whether charters are serving enough general education students is not the most debated issue concerning special education in the charter sector. Some studies have shown that fewer students with disabilities attend charters nationally, compared with their regular district counterparts—findings that fuel debate over whether students with disabilities are getting fair access to the schools.

Often cited in this debate is a 2012 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found that nationally 8 percent of students who are enrolled in charter schools had a disability, compared with 11 percent in district-run schools. But a national survey by the CER found that 13.6 percent of charter students are in special education, which is comparable to the 12.9 percent of special needs students in regular district-run schools.

Critics charge that charter schools turn away or weed out students with special needs in order to improve the overall academic outcomes of their schools—a tactic called “counseling out.” Some charter advocates point to other factors that might lead to disparities in the numbers of students with disabilities served in regular and charter schools. For instance, better instruction could lead to fewer students’ being classified with certain disorders such as dyslexia, or fewer parents might choose to send their children to charters.

But the issue could be more nuanced, rooted in subtle messaging that dissuades parents of students with disabilities from applying to charters, starting with the school’s stated mission and available services.

“I get to define a particular interest and set my educational table and say to folks: This is how I set my table, do you want to come? " said Julie F. Mead, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has studied both the special education gap in general charters and the issues raised by specialized charters.

“If you set up a system based on market principles that are designed to allow schools to serve particular interests, then we’re going to get pockets of interest,” Ms. Mead said. “If we’re not OK with that, then how are we going to engineer our policies to produce an equitable result we’re comfortable with?”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Special Charters Target Students With Disabilities


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