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A Bad Argument on Charters and Special Ed

I'm a more than a little late to the punch on GAO's recent report on special education and charter schools, but I wanted to comment briefly because I continue to be totally flummoxed by some folks in the charter community's reaction to what was, essentially, a very even handed reporting of data on special education enrollment in charter schools. As my colleague Andy Rotherham noted last week, this report was hardly the "slam" on charter schools that some folks are characterizing it as, and the GAO went out of its way to describe the number of factors that might contribute to lowered rates of special education enrollment in some charter schools, even if no one is doing anything wrong.

I'm particularly troubled, though, by an argument I've seen some folks in the charter movement take up lately that it's somehow unfair or unreasonable to compare charter special education enrollments to district special ed enrollments because, while school districts or systems are required to serve all students, individual public schools are not required to serve every child with special needs. This argument is problematic for a host of reasons:

  • First of all, the vast majority of students with disabilities have relatively moderate needs that every school can and should be expected to serve. Even if one believes that each individual school should not be expected to serve students with severe cognitive impairments or medical needs, that's only a very small portion of the total of students in special education.

  • Second, some disability rights advocates and parents do believe that every public school should be expected to serve every child. I don't fully agree with this argument, and it's not what the letter of IDEA requires, either, but people who are going to engage in debates about special ed ought to at least understand that--as well as respect the real frustrations of parents and disability rights advocates with district policies and practices that, for example, may prevent children with disabilities from attending the same school as their typically developing siblings.

  • Third, even if individual schools are not expected to serve all children with disabilities, LEAs are. And many (though hardly all) charter schools are LEAs, so the expectations and responsibilities that apply to LEAs under IDEA apply to them (Tangent: one interesting note in the GAO report that I'm surprised didn't get more attention is that when charters are part of a district LEA for special ed purposes, the district actually has a role in deciding child placement decisions, and district roles here may be one factor influencing differential special ed enrollments at charter schools). This is true whether an LEA has many schools or few--and the reality is that, while our policy debates tend to focus on large and urban districts, the majority of districts in the U.S. are small--but that doesn't change these districts' obligations to serve children with special needs. Small, rural districts and charter schools face very similar challenges in serving children with special needs and there are real opportunities for collaboration here around both practical and policy solutions (such as high-cost/low-incidence pools and collaboratives). To the extent that emphasizing the distinction between individual schools versus school systems in special ed obligations elides this fact, that's a real missed opportunity.

Moreover, emphasizing the (not entirely existent) distinction between charters and districts in special ed obligations risks overlooking a very fundamental issue here, which is the very central but increasingly problematic role that the "local educational agency" concept plays in federal education policies, including ESEA and particularly IDEA. Our federal policies are based on the assumption that there are these entities called LEAs that look a certain way, but not all LEAs look that way, and as we continue to move towards diverse delivery and inter-district choice in education, the reliance on LEAs in policy creates more and more issues that should be carefully looked at an analyzed/understood.

Due to the polarized politics around chartering in current debates, there's an impulse for charter advocates to be defensive in conversations about the role of charters and special education, which is unfortunate. Put your ear to the ground in any community with significant concentrations of children in charter schools and you will soon begin to believe there are some real issues and rare but real bad actors here that both undermine the principles of the movement and risk a blow-up at some future point in time if not addressed--but that the vast majority of charter leaders and operators are trying to do the right thing and serve children with special needs well in the face of very real policy and practical challenges. The chart on page 9 of this report tells a striking tale of wide variation in the percentage of children with special needs enrolled in charters, with more than 11% of charters enrolling upwards of 20% students with special needs, and roughly 1 in 7 charters enrolls fewer than 4% special ed students--and it's legitimate to ask questions about what's going on with that latter group. Charters and kids are best served by frankness and transparency here around the real issues, the obligations of schools, and what's working well--as well as what's not.

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