Statement of Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D., Executive Director and Co-founder
National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools
“Raising the Bar: The Role of Charter Schools in K-12 Education”
Education and the Workforce Committee
March 12, 2014
The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) is committed to ensuring equal access and exceptional opportunities for all students in charter schools. NCSECS is a nonprofit devoted to advocating 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 excel.
Approximately 6.4 million students—13.1 percent of the student population between the ages of six and 21—receive special education and related services in public schools every year. Ninety-five percent of these students are enrolled in neighborhood schools, and the vast majority spends most of the day in a general education classroom. While these students require a diverse array of services to help them fully access the general education curriculum, the majority can achieve the same academic outcomes as their peers without disabilities.
As the charter sector enters its mid-20s, it ought to evaluate both its strengths and its weaknesses. To meet the ambitious goals that drive the sector, stakeholders must double down on efforts to ensure not only that all students can access public charter schools, but also that charter school leaders are committed to creating and sustaining vibrant public schools that include a focused effort on integrating excellent opportunities for students both with and without disabilities.
Multiple challenges influence delivery of special education and related services in the charter sector. Efforts to ensure that (1) students with disabilities can access public charter schools and (2) these schools are positioned to offer strong academic programs for all students are predicated on understanding and, to the extent possible, mitigating challenges specific to public charter schools.
The following actions can help operators and support organizations proactively ensure that their schools not only welcome but also create exceptional opportunities for all students, including student with disabilities, as outlined in Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools, which I authored along with Paul O’Neill in October, 2013:
1. Advocate to Address Policy Barriers- Public charter schools face barriers stemming from idiosyncratic state charter statutes, policies, and traditional district practices (e.g., inequitable funding, unclear delegation of responsibility and authority, and limited access to critical special education infrastructures). Rather than passively accept these barriers, charter operators and support organizations can form coalitions and mobilize parents to advocate for policy changes in the best interests of students with disabilities.
2. Adopt Key Instructional Strategies to Support all Students- Best practices such as preschool; Universal Design for Learning; and robust Response to Intervention programs that have a laser sharp focus on early literacy, quality instruction, targeted interventions, and progress monitoring that benefit all students, particularly students with disabilities with diverse learning needs.
3. Identify Strategic Partnerships and Coalitions- Many public charter schools are small, have limited budgets, and lack key institutional routines and structures. While these conditions are challenging, they create an environment that is ripe for entrepreneurial innovation. Strategic partnerships with other public charter schools, existing community organizations (e.g., mental health providers), and even traditional public schools can build and extend charter schools’ capacity related to effectively educating students with disabilities.
4. Hire Intentionally and Strategically- Due primarily to small school size, many public charter school employees need to be able to wear multiple hats. Consequently, the value of individual employees is amplified—public charter schools must recruit, hire, and retain exceedingly well. Hiring intentionally requires a clear understanding of how a particular position fits within the broader school puzzle. It also may require being creative about job descriptions to fully leverage individual teachers’ and administrators’ unique skills. Providing differentiated supports to students with diverse learning needs depends on hiring skilled employees who not only understand special education law, but also, understand how to accommodate individual students’ needs. Finally, intentional efforts to support and sustain skilled personnel (e.g., robust professional development opportunities and career ladders that reward excellence) are essential to sustaining quality programs.
5. Track, Analyze, and Report Data- Much of the dialogue regarding special education in the charter sector is driven by anecdotes and outliers, but data are essential to a reasoned conversation. Public charter school operators and support groups can pre-empt potentially cumbersome demands from opponents by proactively collecting and reporting data regarding special education.
6. Own and Address Shortcomings- To date, enough public charter schools have fallen short in enrolling and effectively serving students with disabilities (See 2012 General Accountability Office report) that acknowledging and addressing these shortcomings is important to change the dialogue about special education in the sector. In particular, public charter schools that have struggled to attract and retain students need to engage qualified personnel, parents, and local special education advocates to enhance their programs and improve their reputations in the special education community. Public charter schools need to own and address perceptions, and in some cases, real shortcomings, to attract and retain students with diverse learning needs. At the federal and state level, policy leaders need to provide robust guidance and ensure accountability systems are in fact creating a reliable means to hold both charter schools and authorizers accountable.
Given the growing scrutiny of special education in public charter schools, operators, networks, and support organizations must invest in developing an intentional strategy related to special education, as opposed to operating a reactive program, that fully integrates and supports all students’ instructional and social and emotional needs into the broader instructional core. Special education law is grounded in a commitment to protecting the civil rights of students who historically have been marginalized in public schools. Ensuring that students with disabilities are able to enjoy the autonomy that has fostered the creation of exemplary schools could be the sector’s next notable accomplishment and help assure that thousands more students graduate from high school ready to successfully enter college or access career training.