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.