Parents with students who have disabilities are troubled by the problems their children face in public schools. They may turn to charter schools believing they will finally get the services they find lacking in public school.
But charter schools are not an acceptable answer in most cases. We’ve known for years that students with disabilities are often excluded from charter schools where there’s inclusion. In schools where there’s segregation (only students with disabilities) children may not have qualified teachers. Nor do they get to socialize with their non-disabled peers.
This is especially disturbing since parents of students with disabilities are supposed to have a legal right to appropriate services. Their children should have access to the least restrictive environment with appropriate Individual Educational Plans in their public schools.
While charter schools are not viable, underfunded public schools are plagued with overcrowded inclusion classes, unsympathetic district and school administrators, teachers with inappropriate credentials, or no program support for students. Many states and local school districts intentionally deny students services.
Similarly, it’s common knowledge that charter schools reject students with disabilities, if not outright, they counsel students out. In 2014, Education Next, a conservative publication supportive of choice, raised concerns that charter schools were not serving children with disabilities.
The State of Texas provides a blatant example of this. For years, in order to cut costs, they placed illegal caps on how many students could receive special education services. Many students missed out on what the district owed them. Even after this was discovered, the Texas Education Agency has refused to do what’s best for students. A recent report indicates that the TEA, run by a superintendent who was never a teacher and is pro privatization, still denies students with disabilities the services they require by law.
While the State of Texas promotes choice and charters, charters aren’t fulfilling the needs of students with disabilities either. Parents have to fight for services in charters like they have to fight for services in traditional public schools.
In response to the investigation, Texas lawmakers banned the cap in 2017, while the U.S. Department of Education ordered the state to stop the practice and make amends in January 2018.
Since then, the percentage of children getting special ed services has barely inched up — it’s still under 10% statewide in 2019. But charter schools have made even less improvement. For the 2018-19 school year, only about 7% of students at Texas charters received special ed services, like tutoring or counseling. That’s half the national rate of 14%.
After Katrina, New Orleans converted its public schools to mostly charters. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit charging that the charters there did not serve students with disabilities. A Big Easy report indicated many problems with charters, including fraud and administrators telling students to stay home.
In 2014, as a result of that suit, those schools were supposed to be followed closely by the state Department of Education to keep track of how charter schools in New Orleans identified, served, and disciplined students with special needs.
This past November three charter schools were found not to be in compliance by the Louisiana Department of Education. The charters must correct the problems or their charter terms could be reduced when they come up for renewal. That might sound legitimately strict on schools, but if those schools close, where will students with disabilities go? Why after all this time are charter schools still not performing well when it comes to students with disabilities?
Are charter school teachers who serve students with disabilities required to have state teacher certification? It depends on where you live, and state rules can be sketchy (see page 5).
Some states emphasize credentials, but they highlight alternative routes to get teachers into the classroom. Since there’s a teacher shortage, this can be a problem for both charter and traditional public schools.
Some parents find that a charter school might give their child attention, and that support means everything to them. But unless there’s pre and post test assessment, it’s difficult to see if the student has made academic gains.
Also, if the charter school is overseen by the local school district the chances are higher that teachers will be certified to teach. But parents should look into this carefully.
Some charters provide transportation, while others rely on the local school district. Transportation can be a problem for students with disabilities.
There will invariably be a parent or parents who praise the charter school where they placed their child, but they usually offer little if any proof that their child is succeeding or making academic or social gains.
Where’s Betsy DeVos?
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos should be ensuring that public schools offer a continuum of services with well-prepared teachers. Inclusion classes should provide support to general education teachers with special education teachers as co-teachers.
Parents with children who have learning disabilities must receive the school support that was promised them forty-five years ago! There’s no excuse for those in educational leadership positions at whatever level to deny students their rights.
Parents are left with little support. They don’t have time or money to invest in getting an attorney. Even if they organize a class action suit, by the time they get their day in court precious time has passed for their child. They want services and they want services now.
Vouchers that lead to unvetted charter schools are found in several states. In Florida there’s the McKay Scholarship Program. But charter schools in Florida are less than ideal, and the word is that parents who get vouchers there place their children in unregulated parochial schools that offer little in the way of special education.
Betsy DeVos continues to highlight Education Freedom, but there’s no freedom when there are no services for students with disabilities. Parents and their children are still left between a rock and a hard place.
Brian DeGonzague says
Nancy, do you have a different perception on non-profit public charter schools that are overseen by a public school district?
Nancy Bailey says
No. I think nonprofits can be just as bad. I know there are some good charters usually run by teachers (which was the original concept), but those could just as easily be alternative schools with oversight by the local school district.
I think we need one school system with options for parents within the district. Charters lack accountability and it isn’t fair to taxpayers to have to pay for two systems.
Alternative schools can be great. I am reminded of SAIL High School in Leon County, FL….a great alternative school still flourishing. It was started by one savvy teacher. https://www.leonschools.net/Page/32385.
Thanks for your question.
Melissa Pierce says
I have seen many of your observations here firsthand as a speech language pathologist. I also agree one school system with some specialized schools available within it would be more effective, and much easier to monitor, than the current options parents have. I have seen campuses with separate classrooms or even buildings that serve the students with the most severe diagnoses while still offering plenty of opportunity to learn and play with typically developing peers. If funding could be redirected such that charters can no longer accept public funds, perhaps these types of programs would increase in quantity while still under the oversight of the local school district.
Nancy Bailey says
That’s an excellent point about separate classrooms but students who still get together with other learning and socializing opportunities. Than you for sharing, Melissa.
Rasha Alajmi says
I believe that one of the major contributors for this problem is how the legislative structures among states are maintained for charter schools and how responsibility for special education is assigned. According to Morando Rhim et al. (2007) charter schools not only they struggle from the same issues that traditional public schools suffer from (e.g., lack of resources, a shortage of special education staff), but also they struggle from policy ambiguity, their status as schools of choice, and their lack of both experience and resources. Also, they have discussed how that few of the existing charter school laws and regulations resolve or provide clarity regarding the myriad of issues raised related to educating students with disabilities in charter schools (Morando Rhim et al., 2007). The lack of direction can lead to a dynamic wherein charter school operators, authorizers, and state education agency personnel are left to interpret how charter school law and special education laws intersect. At the end, they have proposed few policy tools or strategies to states, authorizers, and charter advocates to address the lack of clarity in the charter laws and regulations such as:
# Provide a clear written explanation of funding streams and how they affect charter schools and authorizers—an explanation of the definition of “proportionate funding” and the role of local, state, and federal dollars in relationship to each charter school’s situation and responsibilities.
#Establish clearly defined criteria for holding charter schools accountable for both the academic outcome of students with disabilities and also the program outcomes, including who provides the oversight in this area.
Morando Rhim, L., Ahearn, E. M., & Lange, C. M. (2007). Charter school statutes and special education: Policy answers or policy ambiguity?. The Journal of Special Education, 41(1), 50-63.
Nancy Bailey says
Traditional public schools used to have rules and regulations which established decent special education, so why have charters? Charters are supposed to be schools that don’t have binding rules. I am not an advocate for charter schools. Public schools used to have alternative schools which were schools usually run by teachers to try innovative curriculum changes. Some of them worked out well. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Rasha.