Choice and Specialization Are Important Levers for Parents of Students with Disabilities

by Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director and Co-Founder

In a recent commentary for Flypaper, I expressed concern regarding the growth of specialized charter schools: that is, schools designed solely or primarily to educate students with disabilities. Regrettably, my commentary failed to convey the nuance this complex and important topic deserves. The National Center for Special Education Charter Schools (NCSECS), and I as its founding Executive Director, support the creation of a wide range of high-quality educational environments for students with disabilities. And many of the specialized charter schools currently operating across the country are providing excellent and legally compliant educational options to students. 

While I support the concept of specialized charter schools, I do so in ways that are highly context-specific, and with an awareness of the risks these schools can create. Continued authorization and growth of specialized charter schools requires care and precision given the potential unintended consequences, which could include: limiting choices for students, driving students into unnecessarily restrictive settings, and decreasing accountability and expectations. Each of these risks is elaborated more fully below along with a few examples of why these apprehensions require consideration.

Limitation of Choice.

Growth of specialized charter schools designed to provide parents with choice could have the unintended consequence of actually limiting choice. That is, students with a specific disability may be steered toward the specialized school, other schools may limit the supports and services they provide given the existence of the specialized schools, and specialized schools may prioritize access to a narrow profile of students (e.g., only students with Dyslexia) and limit access to students with other disabilities who may be interested in the school. It is not hard to see how an apparently good idea evolves over time to become a system that locks students into relatively rigid tracks based on their disability rather than their ability. History has taught us this lesson.


A key element of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that students with disabilities must be educated together with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for their needs. This requirement is based on established civil rights tenets related to separate being inherently unequal and supported by research related to student outcomes. Identifying and providing the least restrictive environment (LRE), which may be a specialized school for some students, is not optional. While specialized schools can provide rich learning opportunities, we need to ensure that parents and students are not required to choose unnecessarily restrictive settings in order to access quality learning opportunities. I am uneasy about this outcome not because of an abstract legalistic paranoia, but because these practices led to the creation of IDEA in the first place.

Accountability and Expectations.

Finally, there is also a danger that specialized schools may not actually be good at serving the students they are designed to educate and student’s status as having a disability may become a justification for low expectations. This makes it crucial to understand how good a specialized school is at its chosen mission. When confronted with unacceptable results, specialized schools – like almost all charter schools with high concentrations of “hard-to-teach” kids – may argue their impact is impossible to measure and that their kids are more challenging to educate than can be observed. These arguments will be used to not only keep bad schools open, but to justify lowering expectations for similar students everywhere.

Examples of Good Ideas Gone Wrong.

Examples from a network of traditional public schools in Georgia and a charter school in New York provide insight into my position regarding the growth of specialized charter schools. While the opportunity to create attractive options for student with disabilities is tangible, caution is justified.  

The state of Georgia is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the Office for Civil Rights at the Justice Department based on allegations that the  Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports (G-NETS), a network of 24 specialized public schools, represents a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act due to segregation of students. Notably, when the first G-NETS school opened in 1970, it was characterized as “visionary” because students would be able to attend schools that employed a rich mosaic of experts who would be able to help students with a variety of disabilities reach their potential. Over time, G-NETS schools degenerated to educational deserts lacking a clear curriculum, qualified teachers much less specialists, or a path for students to return to general education settings. While an extreme example, the charter sector would be wise to learn from the mistakes we have made historically in traditional public schools.  

In the charter space, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) has been wrestling with how to hold Opportunity Charter School, a charter school for students with learning disabilities and cognitive delays, accountable for nearly 15 years. NYCDOE recently rejected requests to expand the school and moved to close its middle school due to low performance; only 9% of the students demonstrated reading proficiency compared to 13% of a similar subset of students with disabilities in other schools. Citing the target population, the school has been able to remain open. If a school is going to advertise that it has unique expertise to serve students with disabilities, authorizers must be prepared to hold the school accountable for educating its students at least as well as more inclusive schools.

 Balancing Opportunities with Concerns.

All public schools are legally obligated, and should be able to, appropriately serve the vast majority of students with disabilities, in inclusive settings. Unfortunately, too many public schools—charter and traditional alike—struggle to meet these obligations. And their parents, like all parents of students who are not being well served, are right to insist their children get what they need, as well as to look for better options. Astute authorizers can safeguard against the challenges observed in Georgia and New York but it is an explicit responsibility which needs to be embraced by the authorizer. In many instances, such as when charter schools operate as part of a larger traditional district, this will require close collaboration with local district personnel who play a role in enrollment and allocating resources.

The strong legal and programmatic preference for inclusive settings arose from decades of discrimination against students with disabilities, who were given no option but to be placed in restrictive settings. The challenge before us is to ensure the programmatic innovation and excellence that the best specialized schools provide--in both sectors--exists without having specialized schools become the default or only option for students with disabilities.


The National CMO Special Education Network - Connecting Special Education Professionals

The charter sector cannot fulfill the responsibilities central to being a public school absent a coherent and coordinated effort to improve the capacity of individual schools to provide quality special education and related services. Focused efforts to cultivate and distribute policies and practices that ensure charter schools welcome and provide exemplary services to students with disabilities are urgently needed. A few dozen networks of charter schools operated by nonprofit charter management organizations are positioned to be thought leaders in the area of effective and innovative special education practice, but lack the required support and focused facilitation to fulfill this role. In response to this need, NCSECS launched the “National CMO Special Education Network” in 2014 to provide thought leadership and facilitate and catalyze knowledge acquisition by CMOs across the country.

Read more about the National CMO Education Network.

NCSECS Comments on NCD Reports on the Use of Charter Schools and Vouchers by Students with Disabilities

In service of the 6.8 million students with disabilities and their families, we thank the National Council on Disability and the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus for devoting resources to investigate this important topic. The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) exists to ensure that students with disabilities can fully access and thrive in charter schools. Today’s report, which includes data provided by NCSECS, reminds us of the innovative and transformative power of charter schools and also underscores the challenges that many parents face when seeking to exercise school choice as well as the challenges charters face in adequately admitting and serving students with disabilities.

  • Students with disabilities continue to enroll in charter schools at lower rates than traditional public schools; however, more research is needed to understand the reasons why. In addition, states and authorizers need to work with charter schools to ensure they are developing the expertise required to serve students who will enroll.

  • In certain geographic locations, parents predominantly choose charter schools when their child is not well served by the local public school; therefore, assuring that more families have a similar choice is imperative to assuring an equitable choice is available wherever charter schools exist

  • Serious fiscal equity challenges exist regardless of the charter’s status as a school or its own local education authority. Authorizers can and should help by implementing key recommendations offered via the report.

In order for charter schools to be considered legitimate public school options, they must address these challenges head on. Similarly, voucher programs should heed the lessons reinforced by this report. The Principles of Equitable Schools establish core principles that should be upheld by any school enrolling students using public dollars. We encourage all schools to align their school design, policies, and programming with the Principles as a starting point so that all students with disabilities have access to schools of choice committed to providing a high quality education to every student.

NCSECS Supports Keeping All Students Safe Act

Dear Representative Beyer and Senator Murphy:

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) is dedicated to ensuring that students with disabilities have equal access to charter schools and that charter schools are designed and operated to enable all students to succeed. NCSESCS is a leader and partner with state charter authorizers, charter networks, and charter schools across the United States. Today, we write to express our strong support for the introduction of the Keeping All Students Safe Act. We appreciate your leadership in proposing legislation that prohibits seclusion and seeks to prevent and limit the use of restraint in schools. This bill, if enacted, would considerably strengthen protections in every state and ensure the safety of all students and school personnel.

Restraint and seclusion are dangerous practices that cause students trauma and have resulted in injury, and even death. School personnel can also be injured when imposing restraint and seclusion. Though the use of restraint and seclusion is widespread, national data indicates that students with disabilities are roughly 20 times more likely than their peers without disabilities to be restrained and/or secluded. All of our nation’s students deserve better. NCSECS, through the Equity Coalition has developed a Statement on Discipline for charter schools to embrace as they seek to provide inclusive, safe and positive learning environments for all students, consistent with the purposes of this bill.

We appreciate that the Keeping All Students Safe Act will prohibit seclusion and seek to prevent and reduce the use of physical restraint. The bill also promotes a shift toward preventing problematic behavior through use of de-escalation techniques, conflict management, and evidence-based positive behavioral interventions and supports. This improved focus will help school personnel understand the needs of their students and safely address the source of their behaviors – a better result for everyone in our nation’s schools.

We applaud your leadership in authoring and promoting the Keeping All Students Safe Act. We look forward to working with you and your staff to help pass this important legislation.


Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D.

Executive Director

When Charter Schools Close, Regulators Must Step Up and Minimize Disruptions for Students with Disabilities

Regulations and protocols at the federal and state levels exist to minimize the disruption public school closures create and to protect finite funding, resources, and student privacy. For students with disabilities and their families, who already have limited access to high quality public school options, school closures can become a nightmare, making enforcement of the regulations and required protocols, critically important. The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded, among many findings, in its Nationwide Audit of Oversight of Closed Charter Schools that state education agencies (SEA) did not always meet the federal and state requirements when (1) performing close-out procedures for Federal funds a charter school received, (2) disposing of assets a charter school acquired with Federal funds, and (3) protecting and maintaining student information and records from closed charter schools. The OIG’s findings relate directly to students with disabilities attending charter schools and underscore the critical role state departments of education, charter authorizers, as well as ED play in the responsible management of the precious resources allocated for students requiring special education services and in protecting their personal information.

States receive federal funding to provide services and supports to students with disabilities at their traditional public and charter schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Assets such as materials and supplies required to differentiate the curriculum and computers and specialized equipment or devices that assist students with disabilities to learn  may be procured using IDEA funding. Separate from funding specific items, both IDEA and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) outline requirements for maintaining student privacy. Given the perennial achievement gap between students who qualify for special education and their peers, the OIGs determination that states are not always meeting the requirements to close-out federal funds, dispose of assets, nor protect student information in its audit of charter school closures is tantamount to financial and programmatic negligence. Given the scarcity of resources, we simply cannot afford to essentially lose the materials and equipment purchased with federal funds. Furthermore, states must uphold their responsibilities to protect the privacy of all students. It is imperative, therefore that state education agencies take responsibility for adhering to all federal and state-required close-out protocols and request support from the ED when needed.

The ED should fulfill its obligation to ensure that SEAs comply with applicable federal laws and regulations. This includes working with state education agencies to develop and implement effective charter school closure procedures and adequately address issues related to federal grant closeout, disposition of assets purchased with federal funds, and protection and maintenance of student records for closed charter schools. Students, with disabilities and their families are counting on federal and state authorities to work together to make a transition to a new school a positive one, not an event that places their privacy at risk. ED must help states adhere to the laws so that every child is protected to the greatest extent possible.