By: Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director and Co-Founder, The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools
I agree with Valerie Strauss’ opening comment in Why Charter Schools Get Public Education Advocates So Angry; there is too little meaningful oversight of public charter schools. I would argue that until recently, many authorizers, including districts, have largely been passive when it comes to holding charter schools accountable for issues related to equity. However, the data clearly shows that accountability for student performance, including students with disabilities, is no better in traditional public schools than in public charter schools and student outcomes after forty years of a requirement to provide a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment continues to result in disparate outcomes for students with disabilities. For instance, the most recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed the achievement gap between students with and without disabilities to be between 27% and 31% in tested grades. And, just last week, the U.S. Department of Education released its annual assessments of states’ implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and found 26 states and the District of Columbia in need of support due to poor performance. I am not defending or apologizing for charter schools, but rather pointing out that highlighting special education as a strategy to criticize charter schools does not serve students with disabilities but rather, distracts from a far more systemic problem.
Authorizers should do more to ensure that charter schools’ doors are open to all students who apply to them and must hold schools accountable if they see patterns that indicate discrimination. Furthermore, the charter sector must own the fact that inadequate attention has been given to the importance of authorizers and consequently, there are weak charter authorizers, including a number of state education agencies that serve as authorizers. What Burris fails to recognize, however, is that this situation is much improved from a decade or more ago when authorizers were new to their roles and had little expertise available to them. Strong authorizers and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) have developed and widely disseminated best practices. NACSA in particular is working to raise standards and get weak authorizers out of the business of overseeing schools. States, whether serving as a charter authorizer or not, must hold all schools accountable for student success and NACSA is showing a deep commitment to what matters most to students and families so that States will have both the capacity and ability to act.
Burris’ language about Charter Management Organizations (CMO), referred to as ‘charter chains’ overstates the actual numbers. Recent data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools indicate approximately 30% of the charter schools in the nation are part of a network while the rest are independent single school entities, frequently started and governed by parents. The CMO phenomena is influenced by multiple factors, including the need to centralize technical expertise to support teacher training, improved educational programming and increased collaboration. Where politically feasible, collaboration with districts could reduce the incentive to expand CMOs. To imply that all or most CMOs are driven by profit motives oversimplifies the context and simply does not reflect actual practice.
Finally, Burris points to the growth of the charter sector and questions its purpose as compared to students’ ability to attend a local traditional public school. From my perspective, the charter sector is growing for one important reason – parents want options. Enrollment of students with disabilities in public charter schools (10.42%) is not yet proportional to traditional public schools (12.47%) but students with disabilities attending public charter schools tend to be educated in more inclusive settings; a long held goal of parents and special education advocates. Given the current outcomes of students with disabilities and judging by litigation related to provision of special education, we know that many parents of students with disabilities are seeking choice. The answer is to increase quality options, not pledge allegiance to traditional public schools under the false pretense that having an elected versus an appointed school board somehow makes schools inherently better or more public. I agree with Burris that there are good and bad schools in both sectors, yet neither sector fully embraces accountability in ways that would significantly reduce the negative consequences for students with disabilities and others historically marginalized by systems lacking nuanced accountability systems. I view this as critical.
As a nonprofit committed to ensuring students with disabilities have ready access to charter schools prepared to provide them with quality programs, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools sees accountability systems that require schools to account for the performance of all students as critical. The sector needs to police itself or it runs the risk of over-regulation or extinction.