Academic journal article Education Next

Should Charter Schools Enroll More Special Education Students: The Key Is Innovation, Not Regulation

Academic journal article Education Next

Should Charter Schools Enroll More Special Education Students: The Key Is Innovation, Not Regulation

Article excerpt

Should charter schools be required to enroll students labeled special needs at the same rate as local school districts, that is, educate their "fair share"? Or is it reasonable for a charter school to counsel special education students to go elsewhere, if another school would be a better fit? If "fair share" requirements are not appropriate, what is? Can any school be expected to meet every need of every child?

Exploring these questions are Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington; Gary Miron, professor in the College of Education at Western Michigan University; and Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University.

It's never acceptable for charters to refuse to provide special education services or to "counsel out" or refuse to serve students with disabilities, but it's a particular problem when charters comprise nearly half of all public schools in a district. In Detroit, where more than 40 percent of students attend charters, traditional district schools are slowly taking on a higher and higher proportion of students with special needs. Concentrating students with disabilities in a certain cluster of schools is not good for kids, and because these students represent higher-than-average costs, this imbalance is not financially sustainable for districts. It's also not good for the reputation of charter schools to say they serve the neediest students--just not that kind of needy. If charter schools want to be treated as a scalable solution, they have to act like it.

In terms of national averages, the difference between charter and district special-education enrollment is about 3 percentage points: according to the Government Accounting Office, roughly 11 percent of students enrolled in regular public schools were on special education plans in 2009-10, compared with 8 percent of charter school students. While the national differential is not huge, it concerns some and gives ammunition to others.

The problem is, when lawmakers become concerned about this issue, their instinct is to pass quotas or other special ed enrollment targets for charters, to ensure a "fair share" of students are being served. This is a bad idea, for a number of reasons. There is no magic number that will mean the charter sector has fulfilled its duty to special education, and policy should not be created under this assumption.

First, averages mask variation. The numbers differ greatly by state and city. Some charters serve large percentages of special education students, others very small. The same is true for district schools, as the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found when it analyzed enrollment in New York City. Schools specialize: some are designed specifically for kids with special needs, some have pre-K special-ed programs that feed into certain schools, and so forth. Some schools, both charter and district, tell families that the school may not be a good "fit" for their child or that the school simply doesn't offer the special education programs or services their child needs. A fair-share policy, then, should be applied to both sectors. Even then, a quota pegged to the average would be impossible to achieve without drawing some students away from specialized programs that may be serving them perfectly well.

Second, sometimes a low special-education percentage doesn't mean that a school is failing to serve students with special needs, but that it is serving them without applying the often-overused special-education label. Charter schools frequently make the argument that, as researcher Marcus Winters found in his 2013 study of New York City charters, they are less likely than traditional schools to identify a student as having a disability. Instead of assuming a child is "learning disabled" if she falls behind her peers academically, they might provide intensive tutoring to help the student catch up. Rather than labeling a child with severe behavior problems "emotionally disturbed," they might create a strong set of schoolwide behavior norms and support their teachers' use of highly effective classroom-management techniques. …

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