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Special Education Charter Schools Vulnerable to Funding Shortfalls

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A charter school in Raleigh, North Carolina for students with disabilities is struggling under the costs of educating those students and may soon close, according to WNCN, a Raleigh-based TV station.

Enrollment has outpaced state and federal funding at the Dynamic Community Charter School, which serves middle and high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Serving high-needs students without a school district-like infrastructure, and often with less public money than regular district-run schools, is a persistent challenge for many charter schools. But the issue can be compounded for those focused on students with disabilities.

Funding Pitfalls

Dynamic Community Charter School's principal, Michael Watkins, told WNCN that the school might have to shut down in January (although the charter school's governing board says that will not happen):

"Being a public school, we have to take everybody. And a kid can come in with a whole host of disabilities. We have to take them and that is hard to budget for some of these services," Watkins said. "We have no way of knowing what to budget for till these kids came in our door."

Watkins went on to say that about 20 of the school's 70 students are essentially unfunded.

A statement on the school's website goes into more details saying that the charter had an influx of home-schooled students who were not enrolled in the public school system last year:

"There is no federal funding for these students' special needs, and these students can only be funded by the state when we finish the [Individualized Education Program, or IEP] process and write special state grants. Establishing an IEP takes time and there are absolutely no guarantees regarding funding for these students."

Although special needs charters are rare—estimates put the number at about 100 nationally—several charter and special education experts predict such schools will become more popular because they offer a tuition-free option for parents seeking specialized programs.

Changing Needs, Static Dollars

But many of those schools could face the same financial quandary as Dynamic Community Charter School.

"The issue of special education is the costs are so incredibly variable for different types of kids and disabilities, but the funding is not," says Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The situation is exacerbated for charter schools, regardless of the type, because they lack economies of scale, says Lake.

For example, a school district can hire a specialized staff member and have them split their time among several schools, while a charter has to hire essentially the same position for just one school. That gets pricey.

In addition, charter schools often receive fewer state dollars and have to find and pay for their own buildings. 

How to Make it Work

However, there are some charter schools pioneering ways to tackle these issues.

"The place that's furthest ahead is New Orleans," Lake said of regular charter schools, or those that are not specializing in serving just students with disabilities. "They've created an emergency fund or a risk pool. It's designed to be a resource if a school gets a disproportionately expensive student or if the number of students [with disabilities] gets very high."

Lake says many successful stand-alone charter schools that focus on students with special needs also rely heavily on philanthropy or partnerships either with universities or community social service organizations— such as the CHIME Institute's Schwarzenegger Community School in Woodland Hills, California. 

You can read a much more detailed story I wrote earlier this year on disability-focused charter schools—and how they juggle federally-mandated inclusion and parentally-demanded school choice—here.

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