Governors Can - and Should - Lead on Special Education

By: Wendy Tucker, Senior Director of Policy

President John Quincy Adams famously said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more and become more, you are a leader.”  That leadership is needed now more than ever in our country in our approach to educating students with disabilities. The stark reality is that we as a nation are largely failing our more than 7 million public school students with disabilities, who make up roughly 13% of the total student population. Despite the fact that the vast majority of students with disabilities have the capacity to graduate and perform on par with their non-disabled peers when given the proper supports and services, there is a significant and persistent gap in academic performance between students with disabilities and those without.  But Governors across the country have the opportunity to change that fact and lead their states in significantly improving the lives of these students.

Earlier this month in Nashville, the National Governors Association held a two day convening of Governors’ offices to discuss policies that support equity and collaboration in education. We at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools were honored to co-host the meeting with the NGA and with Chiefs for Change. 

Over the course of the two day event, sessions focused on policies that allow charter schools, with their built-in autonomy, to better serve at-risk student populations, including students with disabilities, and to more effectively collaborate with traditional district schools with the goal of sharing successful practices.  At a time when the rhetoric against charter schools is often negative, attendees heard about specific policies that encourage collaborative efforts between traditional district and charter schools from Denver to New Orleans to Washington. We saw firsthand Nashville’s Newcomer Academy, a highly effective immersion program for immigrant students that is run by STEM Prep Academy charter school and made possible through a collaborative  partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools and the Nashville Mayor’s Office. Seeing equitable access in action, especially through a collaborative effort, served as a definite call to action for those in attendance.

We were thrilled to participate in the convening and to lead in-depth conversations about proven policies that promote equitable access to charter schools, including robust and transparent data systems and equitable funding formulas. Education leaders from across the country shared successes and ongoing challenges, with a focus on equipping Governors’ offices with the information they need to support policy improvements in their states. 

By championing strong policies in their states, Governors will be able to literally change the lives of many of their young citizens. We hope that seeing equity in action inspired them as much as it inspired us.

Gandhi is credited with saying “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  We as a society simply must do better for our students with disabilities. Our Governors have the opportunity to take the lead on this by using their bully pulpit to communicate that closing the achievement gap for students with disabilities is worth prioritizing and by supporting policies in their states that will ensure that students with disabilities are given the best possible chance for success.  We strongly encourage them to take advantage of this opportunity, and we stand ready to assist them in any way we can.

“If you build it, they will come.”

By: Wendy Tucker, Senior Director of Policy

As I sat on the stage at the National Charter School Conference in Las Vegas last week, minutes before kicking off our “Special Education Policy: Key Challenges and Opportunities” session, those words from Field of Dreams popped into my head. In partnership with the National Alliance, we helped curate a strand of special education related sessions which would take place over the three day conference, and this was the first in the series.  Earlier in the morning, we had welcomed a wonderful group of conference attendees to the Special Education Homeroom, but we really did not know what to expect for attendance. Educating students with disabilities had not historically been an area of focused interest at charter school conferences, but we sensed a growing interest nationally in ensuring equity for students with disabilities. And so, we collaborated with our partners at the National Alliance and the many schools we have had the pleasure of visiting to build the series of sessions. And then we hoped they would come. We were not disappointed. The room was packed with educators, advocates, authorizers, and school leaders, all eager to focus their energy and attention on educating students with disabilities in charter schools. There were so many in attendance that, early in the session, we were told that we had to close off admission to the room because of fire code concerns. Indeed, we had built it.  And here they were.

The level of interest in each of the special education sessions presented over the course of the conference remained high. From a “fishbowl” discussion about a deep dive into special education practices across the country, to a panel of parents, advocates and school leaders discussing collaboration to a powerhouse panel discussion about the enabling conditions necessary to ensure equity for students with disabilities- each session was heavily attended and attendees were active participants in lively conversations, all laser focused on ensuring quality education for students with disabilities in charter schools.

Across the four sessions, several themes emerged:

  • Great school leaders are critical in creating a school culture that not only welcomes but embraces inclusion of students with disabilities;

  • Meaningful, intentional collaboration between general educators, special educators and specialists is necessary for schools to meet the needs of all learners and to view differences as strengths; 

  • Embracing parent voice and committing to authentic parent empowerment are key to forming meaningful relationships between school personnel and parents; and

  • Challenges associated with recruiting and retaining special education teachers and specialists persist and require creative thinking and collaboration. 

We applaud the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools for recognizing the need to focus on special education and for acting on that need. As the debate around charter schools continues to rage, one fact that everyone can agree on is that the over 300,000 students with disabilities currently enrolled in charter schools deserve a quality education. The level of interest and the depth of conversation related to special education at the National Alliance conference gives me much hope that we are part of a great movement to ensure that they get the education they deserve. We look forward to building on the momentum from this year’s conference through our research, policy advocacy, coalition building, and focused support to the charter sector. We will continue to build it, and I have no doubt that these passionate educators, advocates and school leaders will continue to come.

The Community College Funding Crisis and Students with Disabilities

By: Paul O’Neill, Senior Fellow of NCSECS

It is no secret that community colleges, which educate over 9 million students around the country, play a critical role in our higher education system and in training our future workforce. What is shocking is the level to which these schools are under-resourced and how that impacts their ability to deliver on their promise to students.  A new report from the Century Foundation, Recommendations for Providing Community Colleges with the Resources They Need, finds that,  in contrast to elite schools that boast of their admissions selectivity, the nation’s roughly 1,000 community colleges serve “the top 100 percent of students,” but at the same time they are also facing enormous funding challenges that make it extremely difficult to effectively serve all of those students.

The report finds that “[T]he cost of educating socioeconomically disadvantaged students ranged from 22.5 percent to 167.5 percent more than the cost of educating students with no extra needs. In a 2015 analysis, the Education Trust said a 40 percent premium for educating these students should be considered “conservative,” given research finding that it costs twice as much to educate low-income students to the same standards as more-affluent students…. 

At the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools we focus on ensuring that students with disabilities can access and thrive in the K-12 space, and an important part of that is supporting teens as they transition from secondary school to college and careers. With that in mind we were horrified by the findings of the Century Foundation report as it highlights just how challenging it is from a funding perspective for these colleges to serve all of the students on their campuses.

This is daunting and worrisome given that the paper also is very clear that community colleges must make do with funding levels that are woefully, nearly exponentially, below those of major four-year colleges and universities.  According to Century’s data, only one in five students at most highly competitive four-year colleges come from the bottom half of the socio-economic distribution, while the majority of community college students do. Century’s analysis makes it clear that those students most in need of supports and scaffolding in order to succeed are most likely to attend college programs with the lowest capacity to provide these things. The picture gets darker still when you tie that finding to sobering data showing that 81 percent of students entering community college say they aspire to eventually transfer and receive a four-year degree, but only 15 percent do so after six years.

It is hard to read statistics like these in part because they shine a piercing light on the grim, inequitable realities faced by teens and young adults who grow up in poverty and are effectively being denied the chance for something better. It is also hard to read them because many of those young people also contend with disabilities. Century’s analysis does not focus on this issue. If it did, the statistics would likely be even more heartbreaking.  Students who struggle to complete high school despite learning challenges and physical disabilities are some of the most vulnerable young people and are among the least likely to progress to and through college and find viable employment.

Students with disabilities are at a tremendous disadvantage. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that only 65.5 percent of students with disabilities graduate from high school as compared to 84.6 percent of students without disabilities; 18 percent of students with disabilities drop out of high school as compared to 6 percent of students without disabilities; 19.1 percent of people with disabilities are participating in the U.S. Labor force as compared to 65.9 percent of people without disabilities.

For many of these non-typical students, community college is an essential option and stepping stone in a higher education landscape that may offer them few choices. Yet the dramatic, inequitable underfunding that Century identifies can render community college a false, impossible path for students with disabilities to walk. Gone are the IEPs and corresponding services that supported them in high school. Students with skills and talents that could be nurtured and developed, and whose independence could be fostered, are left to flail and to fail. That is unacceptable.  

Ultimately, the Century Foundation offers a wake-up call and makes a request: Let’s engage in research that will answer the question of how much funding is needed in order to allow community colleges to reach consistently positive outcomes for their students. We at the Center could not agree more. All of the energy and effort and commitment that is put into fostering strong outcomes for students with disabilities in charter schools is of little value if those students cannot effectively transition to fulfilling, successful lives. That being the case, we urge the Century Foundation and anyone else who works to determine what it takes for students to succeed in community colleges to make students with disabilities a core consideration in that analysis. We are committed to helping in that effort and to speaking out to raise awareness of this crucial issue.


New NACSA Report Highlights Trends From 3,000 Charter Applications

By: Paul O’Neill, Senior Fellow of NCSECS

Last week, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) issued an engaging new report on its review of nearly 3,000 charter school applications submitted to authorizers in 20 states over the last several years. Called “Reinvigorating the Pipeline: Insights into Proposed and Approved Charter Schools,” the report identifies a range of significant trends, including these:

  • The “no excuses” model is becoming much less prevalent – with authorizer approval of such applications falling 40% over the last 5 years.

  • In contrast, “diverse by design” school models are surging, with authorizers approving such applications at a rate of nearly 65% nationwide.

  • Schools designed specifically to serve a special education population comprise only 2% of the charter applications NACSA reviewed; such applications were approved about 42% of the time, a rate comparable to that of more general applications.

NACSA acknowledges that this analysis is just scratching the surface of what we can learn from the data it has identified. One element it wants to drill down on is equity and access issues. That inquiry could shed important light on special education considerations, including these:

  • What sorts of information about serving students with disabilities do authorizers require of applicants?

  • What are applicants saying about how they will serve diverse learners? How much knowledge do authorizers have about this when they are deciding whether or not to approve an application?

  • Are certain approaches to special education finding favor with authorizers? Are others less likely to be approved?

Currently, this sort of information is scarce and very localized; a national study would be of tremendous value in understanding the current charter environment and fostering positive change. NCSECS looks forward to NACSA’s continuing work in this area. The full report can be found here.

Victory for the Disability Advocacy Community

By: Wendy Tucker, Senior Director of Policy and Megan Ohlssen, Managing Director of Programs

In a huge victory for the disability advocacy community, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) prevailed earlier this month in a closely watched lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education. COPAA filed suit in July over Secretary DeVos’ decision to delay implementation of the Equity in IDEA regulations, which had been scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2018. Adopted in 2016 to address racial disparities in special education, the Equity in IDEA regulations will now immediately go into effect absent action by a higher court.

These regulations are a critical step in ensuring students are receiving the appropriate services and disrupting disproportionality, which is perpetuated in various forms:

  • The inappropriate identification of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education;

  • The underrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in enrichment, gift and talented programs, and access to rigorous curricular materials; and

  • The excessive overrepresentation of culturally and linguistically diverse students involved in disciplinary actions 

It’s imperative that we see greater accountability for states with significant racial disproportionality; oversight of these regulations is paramount. We look forward to working with our partners to build out of systems to support greater equity for all students.  

You can learn more detail about the regulations here and read COPAA’s press release and the District Court’s decision here.