The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools Equity Coalition Statement on Discipline

Charters Schools are Able to Create Inclusive, Positive Environments to Provide ALL Students a Quality Education

 The public charter school sector has demonstrated great potential to create safe, caring and orderly schools that have good reason to be proud of the academic growth of their students. However, some charter schools are criticized for their student discipline practices — including suspension, expulsion, and other actions resulting in the removal of students from the classroom — that disproportionately exclude and impact students with disabilities.

Exclusion of students with disabilities, in particular those with emotional or behavioral disabilities, does not foster a positive school climate, nor does it help create the opportunity for a high quality education.  Sacrificing the educational welfare of some children to achieve the academic progress of others is the wrong paradigm: the academic success of all children should be our priority.

This is a solvable problem. Effective instruction includes effective behavior management that should significantly reduce the need to introduce disciplinary actions. We know that this is being accomplished daily in high performing charter schools that accommodate student differences while supporting optimal learning. Their example should encourage all charter schools—indeed, all public schools—to explore how best to serve students with a broad range of social-emotional needs.

We do not suggest a return to “one-size-fits-all education.” We recognize that the choice to enroll in a charter school comes with a reasonable expectation that a student will benefit from a school’s particular pedagogy and focus. However, recognizing that all students are not the same, careful planning, transparency, and flexibility are required to ensure that those with learning or emotional disabilities are fully supported through the effective development and implementation of the Individualized Education Program.

Public schools exist to give every young person in our country an equal opportunity for a productive and independent future. And, in alignment with federal civil rights statutes, they must follow requirements related to ensuring access and due process for students with disabilities. These legal obligations are the same for both traditional and public charter schools and should be stated clearly in charter school contracts.

In particular, all schools should commit to:

  • Treating every child with dignity and respect.
  • Providing a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • Providing training to ensure that staff are:
    • Knowledgeable about how a student’s disability may affect self-regulation, and the use of appropriate interventions.
    • Aware of cultural diversity and its impact on learning needs, communication, and behavior.
    • Competent to provide meaningful educational experiences regardless of race, ethnicity, disability and culture. 
  • Being trauma sensitive so that students can build trusting relationships with nurturing adults; and use instructional strategies based on the science of trauma, so that challenging behaviors can become opportunities for learning.
  • Using positive behavior supports or other evidence-based approaches designed to improve the learning experience and reduce the need for suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, retention, and other actions that negatively impact student growth and learning.

Given important autonomies, public charter schools have the opportunity to create effective, inclusive learning environments and to be exemplars of educational equity, quality and innovation. We collectively challenge the sector to realize its full potential in benefiting ALL students and to implement effective positive and equitable disciplinary practices that are essential to assuring student success.



Black Alliance for Educational Options


Children's Law Center (DC)

Council for Exceptional Children

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

District of Columbia Public Charter School Board

Educational Support Systems

Goodwill Education Initiatives

Green Dot Public Schools

Hebrew Public Charter Schools for Global Citizens

Kent Intermediate School District, Michigan

Kutz & Bethke LLC

Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

National Association of Charter School Authorizers

National Association of State Directors of Special Education

National Center for Learning Disabilities

National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools

NYC Special Education Collaborative

The Advocacy Institute


The Equity Coalition’s mission is to form a collaborative community of diverse representatives from the charter school and special education communities, and other stakeholders to identify common ground and take collective action. We recognize progress and strong outcomes while informing efforts for continued improvement of access and equity for students with disabilities in the charter sector.

NCSECS Weighs in on New Data Released by NACSA Regarding Authorizing and Special Education

One Set of Data/Four Unique Perspectives on Authorizing and Special Education

April 20, 2016 | By Karega Rausch |

As part of NACSA’s 2015 annual survey, we asked authorizers for their perspectives and practices on issues at the intersection of authorizing and special education. We asked about oversight practices, what they do when problems in service delivery are uncovered, their perspectives on charter school enrollment proportionality and school autonomy, and more. We encourage you to explore the full data release: Authorizing Data in Depth: Special Education.

We learned a lot—both positive and not so positive—that can be used to help authorizers and schools ensure that student and public interests are protected.

We invite you to dig into these unique perspectives. We hope you find the data stimulating and the commentaries informative.

Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D.

Executive Director and Co-Founder, National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools

I commend NACSA for asking charter school authorizers key questions about special education. Authorizers are the gatekeepers of the charter sector. Ensuring they are knowledgeable about requirements for educating students with disabilities—and poised to take action should charter schools fall short—is essential to ensuring all students are provided equal access to the sector.

With that in mind, I was encouraged to see that the majority of surveyed authorizers think charter schools should enroll roughly the same proportion of students with disabilities as traditional districts schools and collect enrollment as well as performance data. While imperfect—for instance, many districts over identify students with disabilities—proportionality is a readily available proxy for equity.

However, three data points cause concern: in combination, they indicate that many of the responding authorizers do not 1) require special education outcomes as part of charter performance contracts; 2) see persistent failure to serve students with disabilities as a behavior that merits serious consequence; or 3) identify themselves as responsible for enforcing special education enrollment proportionality.

Together, these responses naturally lead to these questions:

  • If many authorizers are not tracking these data or willing to meaningfully hold charter schools accountable (i.e. threaten to revoke or non-renewal) for persistent violations related to special education, what in practice is the real consequence for schools failing students with disabilities?
  • Is the apparent lack of accountability simply a by-product of layering new types of schools onto old accountability structures and would more knowledge lead to more robust accountability?
  • Or conversely, are states and authorizers implicitly or explicitly deciding they do not need to hold charter schools accountable for equitable access and quality programs for students with disabilities?

At the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, we see charter schools as important players in the increasingly diverse portfolio of public options for all students. We also appreciate that deregulation is a central component of the positive innovations that have emerged from the sector.

However, we do not see autonomy and accountability as an either/or proposition. We would argue that authorizers should require and actively monitor enrollment and performance data, disaggregated by subgroup, in line with the spirit of state laws. Authorizers should also be communicating to school leaders and school boards that failure to enroll and provide quality programs to all students—including students with disabilities—will, in fact, have tangible consequences.

Ensuring that all students can access and thrive in the charter sector is central to the sector’s credibility as a viable option at scale across the nation.


Civil Rights Data Should Catalyze Conversation about School Disciplinary Practices

Don’t give 95% of schools a pass

Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director

In response to UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies’ report “Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline,” Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools issued the following statement:

“The Center for Civil Rights Remedies’ report puts an important spotlight on an issue that requires attention: the disproportionate suspension of minority students and students with disabilities in public schools. The study confirms what many working in the sector already know to be true. Unfair discipline practice is a public school problem and charter schools are simply no exception.

As we found in our November report: “Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools” (2015) which also examined the Civil Rights Data Collection (2011-2012), disproportionate discipline is inarguably a national crisis. Students with disabilities are expelled and suspended from both traditional and charter schools at exceedingly high rates. We can and we must do more to accelerate adoption of positive behavioral supports, positive discipline, and more broadly, efforts to improve the quality of education to pre-empt behavioral problems stemming from student frustration in all schools. These efforts align with the broader ideals of the charter sector and the autonomy extended to them creates opportunities to find meaningful solutions. However, charter schools must be intentional about their efforts and simultaneously commit to police themselves or run the risk of rightfully earning greater regulatory oversight to address bad actors.

Despite the universal nature of the challenge, the fact that 484 charter schools suspended 20% more students with disabilities than their non-disabled peers in 2001-12—including 6 schools that reported suspending roughly 50% or more of their students with disabilities—is alarming. Students need to be in school in order to learn and this is even more crucial for students with disabilities who must work every day to overcome learning challenges with the support of essential support and accommodations. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that suspensions can have an exponentially negative impact on students -- they miss out on learning opportunities and they are bombarded with negative messages about their behavior that can undermine their ability to persevere and succeed.

The UCLA report finds that a segment of the charter sector is particularly egregious in its disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities. Without question, this is an important finding. However, we are concerned that the authors’ narrow focus on charter schools may undermine the far more important finding in the CRDC data. The data should inform a call to action on behalf of students with disabilities in public schools across the country--both charter and traditional. By focusing solely on charter schools as bad actors, the Center has essentially given traditional public schools, where 95% of all students attend, a pass.

Both traditional and charter schools need to change discipline policies to ensure practices do not lead to discrimination of students with disabilities. It is important to emphasize that the fact that both charters and traditional public schools need to change how they operate is not an excuse for either side to avoid the necessary self-reflection and change.

The timing for this discussion is perfect. Because of a new requirement in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – that every state, in consultation with school leaders, including charters must add an ‘additional indicator(s) of school quality or student success’ to the state accountability system – adding a discipline-related indicator in determining school and district performance makes great sense.

We support UCLA’s recommendations but would add that as the entities empowered to initially grant and potentially revoke charter contracts, charter school authorizers must also be part of the solution. This should involve a combination of education about appropriate and positive discipline and simultaneously, accountability for failure to provide appropriate supports that would decrease suspensions. On this front, state specific reports and analysis of recent data from Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, DC indicate that progress is being made to decrease disproportionate discipline rates.

The charter sector emerged twenty years ago from a desire to create new and better public school options for all students. Mission-driven charter schools can and must be flexible enough to welcome and support students who have learning differences. While disproportionate discipline of students with disabilities remains a pervasive problem in all public schools, the charter sector in particular should hold itself to a higher standard and not recreate the problems that have disillusioned so many parents of students with disabilities about public schools’ commitment to their student’s success.”



Changing of the Guard at the U.S. Department of Education, With No Caveats

By Paul O'Neill, Senior Fellow

In January, John King succeeded Arne Duncan as the leader of the U.S. Department of Education, but he has yet to be given Duncan’s full title.  To date, Mr. King has been functioning as Acting Secretary. On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will hold an executive session on the nomination of Dr. King to serve as Secretary of Education, with no caveats.

Secretary Duncan was tough and assertive. He was faced with a Congress that would not take action on major education reforms; for most of his tenure the legislature refused to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which was long overdue for an overhaul. That law was finally reauthorized late in 2015.  In response to such legislative inaction, Secretary Duncan took bold steps to foster reform – most notably by issuing ESEA waivers to states who signed on to support his priorities, such as performance-based teacher evaluations and the removal of statutory caps on the number of charter schools. He also pressed for innovation by implementing competitive grant programs, such as Race to the Top and Inventing in Innovation (i.e., “i3”). He leaves a somewhat controversial, but unbowed and urgent legacy.

Dr. King seems like an excellent choice to succeed Mr. Duncan.  His own track record leading up to this new office shows a deep commitment to high standards and his own impatience with entrenched systems that do not serve children well. He demonstrated these traits as the founder of a high performing charter school in Massachusetts, as a leader in a school management organization creating strong new charter schools in several states, and most recently, in his role as New York’s Education Commissioner.  Dr. King has demonstrated that he sees the public school landscape as a broad one, strengthened by strong districts and a thriving charter sector.

America will have a new President by next January, so Dr. King may want to treat this year with the zeal of a man who may have a short time in which to make a big impact.  NCSECS hopes that his priorities will include ensuring that all students have access to a full range of high quality school options, including charter schools. We would welcome the opportunity to work with him and his staff to make that happen.  The brand new, reauthorized ESEA will surely require much of his attention.  There are a range of critical issues, such as: the implementation of the reauthorized ESEA (now called The Every Student Succeeds Act) which includes new flexibility for states in designing state standards and accountability systems as well as a hard cap on the number of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities taking alternate assessments on alternate standards; regulations on disproportionate identification of minority students to special education; and, the goal to transition more disadvantaged students into college and careers that will have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable children.

NCSECS hopes for a speedy confirmation, welcomes Dr. King, and looks forward to working with him and his staff this year.