Be Careful What You Wish For

Paul O'Neill

As part of recent Congressional efforts to reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), considerable attention was paid to students with disabilities in charter schools. Several amendments were proposed that would have prioritized admissions of students with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and exempted such admissions from weighted lottery restrictions within federal law that would otherwise block charter schools employing these admissions practices from eligibility for funding under the Public Charter Schools Program of ESEA. That sounds benign in broad brush and, as a measure that could potentially benefit some students with disabilities, should be carefully considered. But the amendments sought to allow charter schools to limit admissions solely to students with SLD. That is problematic for a number of reasons. First, if such a practice is beneficial to students with disabilities, why only SLD? The limitation appears to be arbitrary. Second, refusing to admit students with other disabilities raises serious concerns under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which forbid exclusion from a public entity such as a charter school based solely on a disability for individuals otherwise qualified to take part. Third, the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students with an identified disability be educated together with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for their needs. It is not clear how a charter school that only admits SLD students could meet this standard.

We strongly support efforts to increase the ability of charter schools to serve students with disabilities and empower them to thrive in them. We enthusiastically endorse changes to state and federal law that provide viable opportunities for such improvements. The recently proposed ESEA amendments did not fit this profile. We welcome other approaches and even creative use of existing provisions of state and federal law that allow for some flexibility in tailoring charter school admissions processes to benefit students with disabilities. This is hard and complicated work that must respect the rights of all students with disabilities (even when trying to help some of them).