The Tail and the Donkey

There is an important issue impacting kids with disabilities in charter schools lurking in paragraph 4, below. With a teaser like that, hopefully you will make it through some background.


The Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII) at the U.S. Department of Education recently issued a public notice that it wants to extend a data collection project relating to charter school authorizers. The Department has been using a survey to gather information about the practices of the roughly 900 charter authorizers nationwide, emphasizing their renewal and closure decisions. In its public notice, OII points out that there is no other comprehensive national database of such information, nor another tool for tracking the activities and evaluating the quality of authorizers in light of their decisions about whether or not to close very bad charter schools.

I have not seen the database. I didn’t know it was out there. The point of the public notice is to allow OII to build it out, make it bigger and better, more useful and, I am sure, more visible.

Revising it would be a positive step because

1) greater accountability for authorizers will likely lead to better schools and 2) here is the sped part --- the current survey tool and database don’t address kids with disabilities in charter schools at all.

That isn’t good. OII doesn’t say anything in its public notice about what it has in mind for expansion of this program, so it isn’t clear if gathering information about how serving students with disabilities factors into renewal and non-renewal decisions is something they want to cover. NCSECS believes that it is crucial that the survey tool ask smart, accountability-based questions of authorizers about how a failure to meet the needs of students with disabilities impacts whether to renew or close a school and that the aggregate data from such surveys will start to paint a picture of what authorizer practices are across the country on this point. We will submit a set of specific recommendations to OII as part of the public comment process, and we urge others to do the same and to throw their support behind our recommendations.

But there is a bigger issue here. So often special education is an afterthought for charter school initiatives – an administrative add on, a compliance element that is tacked on to make sure that nobody gets in trouble for failing to ask about it. What is most notable here is that this particular donkey doesn’t even have such a tail – the current survey tool doesn’t include any sped questions, even extraneous ones. That is easy enough to fix as OII revamps its process. But if all this results in is another program that technically asks a superficial question or two about special education considerations, that will be counterproductive and an opportunity will have been missed. What OII and other reform-minded, results-oriented organizations could do is give some serious thought to what sorts of metrics would best lead to the success of kids with disabilities in charter schools, and fashion their questions around that. There is a growing body of knowledge that would support that approach and help them ensure that special education considerations are an integral part of authorizer decisions and the schools they serve.