The charter school concept emerged from a deep commitment to quality and equity; schools of choice operating autonomously from traditional districts would serve as incubators of innovation and leverage market forces to ensure more students could access exemplary public schools. On some counts, the charter sector has met these ambitious goals. Charter schools are attractive options in many districts across the country and they have spawned innovative and highly successful instructional models.
Yet, when it comes to educating students with disabilities, the sector has largely been caught flat-footed. On average, charter schools enroll fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools and they have generally not invested adequate resources to develop exemplary programs for students with disabilities.
While these concerns have been acknowledged since the beginning of the charter movement, shortcomings related to educating students with disabilities are increasingly undermining the credibility of the sector overall. The collective lack of attention to the needs of students with disabilities appears to be reaching a tipping point reflected in growing scrutiny at the federal and state level. For instance, in 2012 the Government Accountability Office conducted an investigation and documented that charter schools across the nation enroll fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is investigating a complaint against charter schools in Washington, DC. Based on concerns in multiple states, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education has mounted two investigations that include examination of issues associated with educating students with disabilities in charter schools. In New Orleans, extensive new requirements related to special education have been implemented in charter schools as a result of the settlement of a lawsuit alleging widespread discrimination against students with disabilities. Rarely does a week go by when there is not an article in a local or national newspaper related to concerns about equal access and problems associated with educating students with disabilities in the charter sector. Unfortunately, these conversations rarely progress past sound bites regarding the shortcomings of charter schools to more substantive conversations regarding how to increase access and develop exemplary programs for students with disabilities.
Twenty-two years into the evolution of the charter sector, no one has worked with national charter school and special education advocacy groups to ensure that students with learning differences are provided equal access to potentially innovative opportunities in the charter sector.