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Students With Disabilities in Charter Schools the Focus of New Nonprofit

More than 2 million students are served in 6,000 charter schools around the country, but a continuing concern has been whether the rapid growth in this sector is leaving students with disabilities behind. 

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, a new nonprofit based in New York, hopes to break down the barriers that may stand in the way of charter schools enrolling and effectively educating students with disabilities. The center's launch was announced today at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers' conference in San Diego. 

"We want to make sure that kids with disabilities have access to all charters on par with their peers," said co-founder and executive director of NCSECS, Lauren Morando Rhim, in an interview. Rhim, who has been a consultant and researcher in the special education and charter school realm, said that she and co-founder Paul O'Neill, an education attorney with expertise in charter schools, noted that the conversation around special education and charter schools seemed to be treading the same ground, with no real movement. 

They decided "we can try to stick a stake in the ground and try to get some traction on this issue," Rhim said, by conducting research, providing sample policy language to states and charter authorizers that can help charter schools achieve parity with traditional schools, and promoting the work of charter networks that can serve as an example to others. 

So far, the center has received funding for the center from the Oak Foundation, based in Geneva, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in the District of Columbia, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in Chicago, the Walton Family Foundation, whose education reform offices are based in Denver, and the Academic Development Institute, based in Lincoln, Ill. Rhim said that the center plans for future funding from fee-for-service work and from public sources, such as the U.S. Department of Education, in addition to foundations. 

The center has outlined four main areas for its work, as it noted in a statement:

  • Communicate vital facts to policy makers, advocates and authorizers about the status and progress of students with disabilities in charter schools;
  • Inform policy so states and authorizers can address barriers and create opportunities for students with disabilities to enroll in charter schools and access effective instructional programs and individualized supports;
  • Develop coalitions and form essential partnerships to both protect student rights and honor the core tenets of the charter sector: choice, autonomy and accountability; and,
  • Create opportunities for excellence that highlight and support exemplary programs for diverse learners in the charter sector.

As a part of its fact-finding work, the center has released a report outlining the legal framework, opportunities and challenges related to special education and charter schools. 

The conversation about students with disabilities in charter schools should go deeper than just examining whether a given charter school enrolls the same percentage of children with disabilities as nearby traditional schools, Rhim said. (Others have also argued for a more sophisticated approach to evaluating how charter schools educate students with special needs.

"Charter schools have to be equally open and accessible to all kids, as traditional public schools are. That's a given," Rhim said. But, she said, "the whole notion of numbers and the proportions being the same presumes that the traditional public schools have a 'right' percentage of students with disabilities. Even in traditional public schools, there's a lot of variability."

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