A common complaint about charter schools is that they don’t provide special education. This makes charter schools much different from traditional public schools which provide services to all children.
Charter schools should not get district special education funding for services they do not provide. But I don’t think charter schools should provide special education. Here’s why.
1. Charter Schools are Not Equipped to Serve Students with Serious Disabilities
Done right, good traditional public schools include a professional team who come together to consider the needs of the student with disabilities and/or gifted students.
The Individual Educational Plan (IEP) meeting includes a variety of specialists. A school psychologist, a district special education staffing specialist, school counselor, principal or school special ed. representative, a special education teacher, a general education teacher, possibly a social worker, and significant others come together and provide valuable feedback about the child.
Parental presence and involvement at this meeting is critical and is a feature that creates the best kind of public school accountability. It is why the idea of an IEP for all children is enticing.
If a student is interested and can participate in the meeting, they are invited to attend too.
Many of the professionals that attend this meeting are support staff coming from the school district, not the individual school. That’s the beauty of a school system when it runs well.
Individual charter schools will not want to fund so many professionals. If they did, they’d have to be monitored to see who they choose to do the job. Charters, as we’ve seen, have little, if any, oversight.
One can only imagine how they would determine what a student with disabilities needs in the way of academic and social instruction.
2. Unprepared Special Education Teachers and Potential for Abuse
Corporate reform has been harmful to special education, especially in urban areas with groups like Teach for America taking charge of classrooms.
Along with this, we see charter schools run with an iron fist. Control is the name of the game. This is not good for students without disabilities let alone children with special needs.
Enlisting Teach for America or the new Relay novices to run classes with students with disabilities is a concern. They don’t receive the preparation a fully credentialed special education teacher obtains. Nor do they stay teaching for long.
We know these strictly run schools have the mindset that all students can succeed if they try. So what happens to the student with special needs who does not do as expected? The concern is that they will be punished for their disability instead of receiving intervention.
We have seen examples of strict enforcement of rules in charter schools like Success Academy. Students with learning disabilities might continuously be suspended for misbehavior or worse. The potential for abuse is there.
3. Overemphasis on Online Instruction
Along with the above concerns about teacher preparation, is the increasing push to place students online for much of their schooling. We have seen this in Rocketship and other charters.
In special education this is often referred to as Universal Design for Learning. Technology has been helpful in the area of language and we know it can be effectively used by teachers. But fears surround placing students with disabilities online for most of their schooling with little actual “real teacher” teaching.
I think the threat of this is very high for all schools advocating Competency-Based/Proficiency/Personalized instruction.
Students with special needs deserve well-prepared teachers and opportunities to relate to them and other students.
4. Segregated Special Education Charter Schools
Inclusion, considered so important in traditional public schools, would be threatened with charter schools.
Parents might feel pressured to put their child in cheaply run unregulated charters that promise to address dyslexia or autism or many other disabilities, without providing students the option to integrate with their peers.
While a school focused on remediation of a disability might be appealing to parents and be helpful to the student, one would question the effectiveness of such a special school as a charter. Would teachers be certified? Would other professionals have appropriate credentials?
The fear is that such charters could morph into small, institutional settings that warehouse students.
Like all the scams we see for charter schools in general, there is a real fear charter owners and workers could pretend to be experts for students with special needs.
There is little doubt that funding cuts have hurt special education programs in traditional public schools. Parents have been left with substandard programming or no programs.
But a charter school will not provide something better.
We need to strengthen a true traditional public school system that has regulations in place for real teachers and administrators, and where a team of professionals can come together to advocate and teach students with disabilities of all kind.
I am not aware of any studies showing charters do well with students who have special needs. Tax dollars have been wasted on charter schools in general.
I know there are some unique charter schools that do succeed with students who may not have disabilities but need a different way to learn. School systems don’t need to be rigid. Any charter that works should be an alternative school or a charter—with oversight from the school district. There is also no reason to hamper such a school’s autonomy. If it works it should receive the attention and support it deserves.
There are all kinds of arrangements that could help students with disabilities and/or gifted students that could be accomplished within public school districts, controlled by the community, to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Insisting unprepared charter schools include students with disabilities will only facilitate the myth that charters are better than true public schools. We should take care that this does not happen.
When we were considering staring a charter school aimed at gifted learners, what held us back from partnering with the local school district was the rigid thinking found there. We were interesting in working with them; they were not interested in working with us. The same rigid thinking is often found in regards to special needs children.
My brother needed special education for multiple learning disabilities. Our family was in a district considered one of the best in the state, yet they could not and would not meet his needs. My parents sacrificed and sent my brother to a private school aimed at learning-disabled students for a couple of years, even though it was expensive and an hour drive each way. After two years there, they had taught my brother skills that allowed him to succeed in the standard classroom. When my parents attempted to work with our local school district to set up a similar school, it was against their philosophy and so they worked with other parents to set up a similar private school. This was in the days before charter schools and the original Michigan charter school law would not have allowed a charter school in a high-performing district. It did not matter that the district was failing to meet the needs of a certain population of students.
These situations were 30 years apart, in different high-performing districts, and for different groups of students, but one thing was in common – they were driven by parents needing services for their children that the school district would not provide. These were not faceless corporations in it for the money. These were families in it for the education!
We found a nearby school district to partner with. We can bring students and the expertise to start a gifted program. They can bring the start-up funding not available as parents and the ability to target a niche that is forbidden to charter schools. It is not as strong a district as our home district – academically, financially, or demographically – but the administration has an openness to different philosophies often not found in high-performing districts.
Yes, there is a problem with charter schools. They are too easy for corporations to open and too difficult for parents to open. They should not be used to replace public schools but meet the needs of those students who are missed – yet such niche services are banned by law in most states. People want them to offer the same services as traditional public schools, yet they do not have the economy of scale and receive thousands less per student. (In Detroit, charter schools receive about 1/2 of what the traditional public schools do.)
I’m all for only having high quality charter schools – as soon as we figure out what that is. Is a school that focuses on character education a failure if academics are at or slightly below the nearby public school? Is a charter school for learning disabled students always a failure since they likely won’t score high on standardized tests? Is an online school a failure if it doesn’t meet state-proficiency standards, even though it allows the child with cancer and the gymnast training for the Olympics to have education?
There are some horrible charter schools out there, run by corporations siphoning off money. There are some horrible public schools out there, run by principals siphoning off money. I want every child to receive a good education and recognize that what parents see as a good education isn’t always in line with what the public schools believe it is. Charter schools can fill vital needs, but parents need be empowered and they need the resources and policies that can help them be successful.
Nancy Bailey says
It is always interesting to read your posts, Joshua, and there is much substance here. I will pick a couple of points to argue.
In reference to charters you said “They should not be used to replace public schools but meet the needs of those students who are missed – yet such niche services are banned by law in most states.”
I would say that public schools should not miss anyone.
In the past, good alternative or magnet schools have been started to fill a need in the community. I do have a problem, like you note, with anyone starting a school. Of course there will be failures and success stories here, but it is often hard to know if charters are credible until it is too late.
Why not have a school system that provides gifted classes that parents desire? Why should you, or other parents, have to seek partnerships with anyone? This is not a poor country. Our public schools should be well-funded and children should get the programs in special education that they need.
You have been struggling to get gifted programming where you are for some time now. What have the kids missed?
I have found that funding is rarely the issue when it comes to gifted education. Our better-funded district will not implement a program. The lower-funded district we are working with was very receptive.
It is a philosophy issue. Our superintendent does not believe in gifted education. The word gifted is not used in our district. Differentiation is the method of choice, but overworked teachers who are provided no resources from the district cannot adequately provide differentiation. Three years ago the district decided it needed to have committees on Multi-Tier Systems of Support, including for high achievers. In three years, there has been no progress. They spent an entire year defining terms. Gifted parents have offered to work with the committee and had their offer rejected. In six years, we made little progress with the district.
Approaching a nearby school district, the superintendent, board of education, and teachers union were extremely welcoming! They asked to have parent input and focus groups. They have been actively working to establish a program. They do have some funding concerns around start-up costs, but are still proceeding.
Public schools should not miss anyone, but sometimes they choose to. Charter schools are the no-cost option when the local district won’t provide services.
What have my kids missed?
* My eldest has become a perfectionist. She sets unrealistic expectations for herself and will spend way too much time on a simple assignment trying to get it exactly right. Also, having to overcome obstacles freaks her out because she hasn’t had to. In sixth grade, her SAT scores are above the high school junior average, but she still receives sixth grade curriculum.
* My middle daughter already has abysmal study habits. She is used to skating by and doing everything at the last moment. She never had to work hard. In third grade, she tested above an average eighth graders on the ACT Explore. We had her skip fourth grade, but her curriculum is still three years behind her academic level.
* My youngest is in first grade. She is the top reader in her class, so her reading groups always are using books several levels below her F&P level. We don’t know what habits and work skills she will have yet.
We live in a well-funded district. They have chosen what they will fund and what they will not and gifted education is not one they will fund. It goes against their philosophy. Charters don’t exist because public schools don’t have the funds to meet the needs of all students. Charters exist because public schools refuse to meet the needs of all students.
Nancy Bailey says
How frustrating for you, Joshua, but especially for your children. Every school district should have to provide services for gifted students, like any other area of special education. But the reality is they don’t.
Your superintendent is doing irreparable harm. I also think cutting special education classes of any kind drives parents out of the school.
Differentiation is trendy, but it can easily ignore children who are gifted. And how strange that a nearby district is receptive.
I’d say speak to an attorney, but that is often easier said than done.
Thank you for sharing. You never know when another parent in the same predicament will notice.
Several families in Michigan have already talked to education law attorneys and there is nothing in Michigan or federal law that mandates services for gifted students. In fact, I believe there was a recent court case that found that Michigan children aren’t even entitled to a quality education. As far as state and federal law and district policy, a student ahead is just where they should be. FAPE is irrelevant.
The superintendent sets the policy for the district. Our superintendent is very good at maintaining the status quo and incremental change. Innovation is not in his vocabulary. He has a military background and expects his troops (administration, principals, and teachers) to fall in line. His mantra is “All our schools are the same.” People know this is not true, but they better work at it until it is true. A gifted magnet school would go against his plan for the district. Even leveled reading groups appears to be on the way out. Several teachers have claimed that the district forbids them from teaching above grade level, although the administration denies this.
The superintendent in the nearby district is very innovative. He is willing to try new programs, such as a gifted magnet school or a leadership academy. Not all his schools will be the same, but that is OK as he recognizes that diversity of strengths can be good. He is less concerned about if a gifted program is 1980s thinking and more about what works. It does help that the over 1000 kids we can bring to the district would represent a 20-25% growth, whereas only 6% for my home district.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my first paragraph, FAPE is irrelevant for gifted students. It is also irrelevant for twice-exceptional (2e) students. When a 2e student starts performing above grade level, LD supports are taken away. Since giftedness can often average out a learning disability, the profoundly gifted can often compensate for a severe learning disability and result in help being removed. It is like taking away a severely nearsighted child’s glasses because he can remember what the teacher says and thus no longer needs to see the whiteboard.
And as my parents found out, FAPE doesn’t apply as it should for special needs children. My brother received years of help in the public schools, but it wasn’t help to overcome his LD. Two years in a private school for LD children got him to the point where he could be self-sufficient in the classroom. However, it was expensive. I believe it was over twice the standard per pupil allotment just for tuition and that didn’t count the other fundraisers. Classes were small, 6-8 kids. Teachers were hand-selected and only lasted if they were very effective. It was expensive and intensive, but in the end it was a much better investment than providing assistance for the rest of his school years. FAPE depends on what the school defines it as, not what a parent believes.
I recognize that all organizations have flaws and never operate up to the ideal. And just like any collection of organizations, quality varies greatly across many aspects. Our home district does very good on standardized tests. We have the right demographics combined with refined programs to attain just the right test scores. But it doesn’t do as great on areas not measured, such as the existence of IB schools, STEAM programs, or gifted education. Some other districts in our area have lower standardized test scores, but offer more options for students. Which is better? Depends on who your child is. Even with outstanding funding, public schools can’t be what every child needs. What is best for one child often conflicts with what is best for another.
Without school of choice and charter schools, families are stuck with only expensive options. I don’t have $60,000 a year lying around to send my children to Roeper. My parents were barely able to find $14,000 to send my brother to Eton Academy. I don’t believe that gifted education or effective special education should only be the domain of wealthy families, but some superintendents do. Two years ago, our district found that 19.79% of children inside district boundaries did not attend our schools. The number one reason was academics – strength and choice. Suggestions of trying to expand options was met with the belief that the families who wanted these options that could afford to leave already had, so we were in little danger of losing more students by not offering these programs. In other words, these options were for the wealthy who could afford schools that offered them. That was one of the last straws for me in whether we would undergo the sacrifice to try to start a school.
I agree!!! Our child has been in a charter school for several years (she is severe special needs). It’s not easy but it’s leaps and bounds better than the two (highly rated) public schools our child attended previously (in California). I’m lucky I can be at home with our child throughout the day. But at public schools we also saw abuse, I wasn’t allowed to know most of what was happening during the day, why my child had bruises a lot, strapped to chair-marks, etc. She was warehoused like crazy and even taught she was a different age and to spell her name differently….the list goes on. Mishandled by a teacher right before our very eyes, lied to by the DISTRICT sp.ed. director. We felt pretty helpless until we got a lawyer that said we could have her taken out until we found a charter.
It’s been a struggle vs the charter as well. They definitely have funding drama; our child supposedly has thousands of dollars available but we cannot sped most of it on stuff she needs (because she needs more sensory and adaptive equipment than piling on extra courses and books, etc (which we have a library of). They also are fighting us seemingly to counsel us out because honestly yes it does take significantly more funding to actually support a severe special needs child. She gets in-person teaching (that I can be in anytime I please, I can record it, I can be a participant..) ! It’s safer than public school was and also we can more individually tailor it to her needs. It took the first year to get good fits with the providers but we mostly were able to change and choose which providers “got” her condition and that work well with her to get progress! It’s worth the fight. We had to come to terms with the fact that no matter where we go it’s going to be a struggle to successfully advocate. At least in the charter school we have more control over our team and our progress.
I think it’s also about the charter schools wanting to be one of the first to successfully include special needs! They want to do so with the least work and funding possible (as MOST schools seem to be doing). If anything our experience has taught us that the charter school could be held even more accountable at the end of the day, because they did accept our child as a student knowing the diagnosis, IEP, etc. Unfortunately as parents we need to push and be persistent and strong to make change. It’s totally possible if more parents had the motivation (and time/resources) to do so. More parents could than they realize because they are scared away by false notions of security of the “traditional” (and outdated) settings vs. putting the effort into researching and grabbing the reins.
Nancy Bailey says
You seem to be praising charter schools. It doesn’t add up.
First of all, we don’t know what public schools you’re referring to. I know sadly abuse can happen in any school and it’s important to have safeguards, but this sounds odd. How strange that your child was in a school where they didn’t tell you what they were doing.
There are many good public schools that when properly funded do a great job when it comes to special ed.
You state that you think charter schools want to be the first to successfully include special needs! But charters are known for rejecting students with disabilities. Consider how they were left out of the charters in New Orleans. That’s been the case in most places.
Public schools have worked to address the needs of children with disabilities, including those with severe disabilities, since the 70s. I know not all public schools are alike and maybe you had a bad experience but your praise of charter schools no matter the simple complaints seems strange.
Jennifer Newton says
I agree to some extent. However, with current studies placing the numbers of students having a disability affecting reading or writing at 20%, and the numbers of those students with dyslexia at 80%, ALL schools have to do better. There are simply too many of these kids and (from my experience with 2 of them) “public” schools do no better than charters in helping them learn.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Jennifer. Interesting points.
I used to work with students in a resource setting (public school) who had learning disabilities and that included students with reading difficulties and dyslexia. So where are the resource classes today?
Public schools and teachers in this country have been criticized and there has been funding cuts galore.
If you reread the post you will notice that I say “When done right.” And I also say that we should focus on good public schools with professional teachers.
Having hit-and-miss charters and underfunded schools does no one any good.
Early intervention is key and as a whole our public education system needs to address that. Studies have shown that intervention in the first five years is vitally important. There is early child find mandate but many parents do not know of the resources available to them. This should be done in collaboration with public education. We need to educate parents on resources, child development and brain development, as well as education on how disbursement of our federal and state tax dollars really works, along with federal and state disability laws and resources. This can be done through our school districts – this is true educational reform. Early childhood is important, partnerships with our parents and communities are vital. It is not nearly as costly as selling our public schools to the highest bidding charter management company or continuing to implement high stakes testing.
Nancy Bailey says
Very well said, Jackie. I have nothing to add. Thanks!
Jeanne Ballou says
I would suggest that not only parents — but political appointees (including the Secretary of Education and state commissioners of education), school administrators, and elected officials & lawmakers at all levels — need to be educated in: child development and brain development; realistic class sizes with appropriate in-class supports (to include high-quality curriculum materials); adequate time for unstructured play; and perhaps most of all, the potential for disaster inherent in putting “five-week-wonders” in front of classrooms while increasingly isolating children in computer cubicles rather than engaging them in authentic learning opportunities.
Nancy Bailey says
Jeanne, wondering here how you got so many great points into one sentence! I agree with everything that you said. Thank you for commenting.
Sheila Resseger says
I’m so glad you wrote this post, Nancy. I have heard the argument from charter opponents that it is unfair to compare the “achievement” of students in charter schools with those of students in the public schools, because public schools must serve all students, and charter schools can cherry pick or weed out difficult to teach students. The implication is that charters should be forced to accept students with special learning needs. This is naive and even foolish. The general public, along with non-educators hawking education policy, seem to believe that it’s easier to teach special needs students than to teach typically progressing students. After all, they’re just slow, right? They can achieve the same high standards as any other child with the right differentiation and high expectations. (The idea they don’t seem to think through is that while many special needs students do require a slower pace due to accommodations and modifications, they can still be assessed at grade level, where grade level is according to their chronological age.) In fact, it is much more difficult to teach students with special needs, precisely because of the variety and complexity of those needs–neurological, sensory, perceptual, emotional, behavioral, or any combination of those. I taught for over 25 years at the RI School for the Deaf. Many students had additional learning needs beyond the early and severe/profound deafness, and many of them came from families where English was not the language of the home. Even with my 2 year Masters degree, it was a challenge to meet the needs of small groups of students. The state school for the deaf had a full team of professionals working with the students–counselor, psychologist, nurse, occupational therapist, physical therapist, as well as fully certified teachers of the deaf in every classroom. The class size was typically 4 to 7 students. Is there any plausible scenario in which a charter school, particularly a for-profit school, would be willing to devote these resources to a small group of students? Without the full range of resources, children would be ill served. Special ed cannot be done on the cheap.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks, Sheila. I have some parents I have heard from who are in favor of charters and online instruction so I am playing defense tonight. So I appreciate your words of wisdom. They came at a good time.
Excitedly awaiting for another blog post from you too. I can’t think of anyone better to start a new blog. Congratulations and good luck!.
Sheila Resseger says
Thanks for the encouraging words, Nancy! I’ve written three pieces so far and am waiting for my next inspiration!
Nancy Bailey says
This reply is for Joshua and anyone interested. I am sorry to hear your particular school district is still not doing well by gifted and 2E students. The lacking education credentials of your superintendent are troubling.
But I hope you will continue to seek solutions. I find that when parents pick up the slack for what’s missing with their gifted kids education, their students will do well in the long run. But that doesn’t make it is right. Nor do students come away unscathed as you know.
Public schools should offer the services children and families need. Your school district is obviously not doing that.
I guess where we differ is placing so much trust in private schools, charters, and parochial schools. Since these schools are not always required to demonstrate how they are doing, or how they measure up compared to public schools, it is difficult to really tell if they are they are better.
Christopher and Sarah Lubienski have written an interesting book on this topic called The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. I know that may seem hard to believe, but their research seems thorough.
Of course, small class sizes help, and your brother did well, so that gives you the proof that you are looking for in your particular circumstances.
I visited the Roeper School in the 70s when I was student teaching. I’m sure it was and is a great school, but all I remember is the igloo-like buildings and the rabbit running loose pooping all over the classroom.
Keep us posted Joshua. Your situation is both concerning and interesting. I may not agree with vouchers and charters, but we are on the same page with wanting better programs which address he needs of students who are gifted.
Roberta Goldman says
I noticed that you failed to mention School Nurses when discussing who provides input as part of the IEP team. School Nurses must assess the student’s hearing, vision, height and weight. They obtain a detailed medical history from the parents and medical records, and speak to physicians as needed. The School Nurse then makes recommendations regarding the impact of the student’s medical/health needs on their educational program, and what accommodations, if any, will be needed. The School Nurse also determines what skill level will be needed for the adult staff who will be involved the student’s care at school, and if if they require trained adult assistants during District provided transportation. Other people who may be included in the IEP Team are Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Educational Audiologists, experts in Assistive Technology, Behaviorists, Speech, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Visual Impairments, etc.
Nancy Bailey says
Thank you, Roberta. That’s a nice addition. It is appreciated.