National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools Announces Inaugural Eileen M. Ahearn Education Visionary Award

For Immediate Release
Contact:  Lisa Cohen, 310-395-2544,
September 9, 2019

Education Advocate Eileen Ahearn Honored for Her Foresight  and Commitment to Ensuring Students With Disabilities Have the Same Access to a High Quality Charter School Education as do Their Peers

Washington, DC – The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (the Center) announced that education advocate Eileen M. Ahearn will receive the inaugural Eileen M. Ahearn Education Visionary Award for her foresight and commitment to ensuring students with disabilities have the same access to a high quality charter school education as do their peers. 

In 1991, when the nation’s first charter school law passed in Minnesota, Eileen recognized that state charter school laws represented an opportunity for children with disabilities.  She also recognized that ensuring that all students would have access to these schools would be complicated, given that existing federal statutes never anticipated charter schools. As Project Director at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDE) when the first charter school laws were passed, Eileen had the foresight to help states and ensure that charter schools had what they needed to comply with their special education obligations.

Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director and Co-Founder of  the Center stated, “Eileen’s recognition of the challenges that might emerge at the intersection of federal civil rights laws and state charter school laws have resulted in more than 300,000 children with disabilities exercising choice in charter schools across the nation.  We are indebted to her vision and work, which created a foundation for the Center’sand we look forward to recognizing her achievements annually as we honor other leaders having an impact in this movement.” 

Paul O’Neill, Co-founder of the Center, added that “Eileen was the trailblazer, tirelessly insisting to all stakeholders that access, equity and academic success for students with disabilities in charter schools must be a priority.  She was right, and they listened.” 

Prior to leading NASDSE’s work advising states and charter schools, Ahearn had over 20 years of experience in Massachusetts as a teacher and administrator in general and special education, culminating in the position of Superintendent of Schools in a K- 12 district. She had also designed, implemented, and served for eight years as the Executive Director of a collaborative providing special education programs, staff development, transportation and business services to 13 public school districts in central Massachusetts.

About the Eileen M. Ahearn Education Visionary Award

The Eileen M. Ahearn Education Visionary Award was established in 2019 to honor an individual or organization that has made an outstanding contribution to ensure that students with disabilities who are interested in attending charter schools are able to access and thrive alongside their peers.  The award was established in honor of Eileen M. Ahearn, a visionary and committed education advocate who was instrumental in the founding of National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and who was the first advocate to help states and charter schools comply with federal special education requirements.

About National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools

Co-founded by Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill, the Center advocates for students with diverse learning needs to ensure that if they are interested in attending charter schools, they are able to access and thrive in schools designed to enable all students to succeed. 

The Center’s Paul O'Neill Featured in Brooklyn Eagle Commenting on Special Ed in NYC

In NYC a councilman recently launched an effort to transfer oversight of special education from New York City's Department of Education to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, a move the Center strongly believes is not in the best interest of students with disabilities. Paul O'Neill, the Center’s Senior Fellow, made the case in an oped published by the Brooklyn Eagle. Let us know what you think and share the story with your networks:

Brooklyn Eagle Opinion: "Keep Special Ed in DOE's Hands

A few weeks ago, New York City Council member Andy King introduced a resolution calling on city, state and federal officials to transfer oversight of special education from the City’s Department of Education to its Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

He claims that this step is needed because the DOE has chronically failed at providing and managing special education services for the roughly 200,000 students in New York City who are in need of them.

To be clear, many children with disabilities are badly underserved, and special education is a constant challenge in New York and everywhere else.

But this is a terrible, half-baked idea. 

Read the full commentary here and leave the Brooklyn Eagle a comment to tell them what you think!

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.