by Lauren Morando Rhim
We recently launched a new non-profit organization, The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, to focus squarely on identifying facts about how students with disabilities are and are not being well served in the charter sector. We will be developing best practices, disseminating those practices, and advocating for strong policies that benefit students with disabilities in charter schools. In line with our mission, and given the critical role charter school authorizers play in evaluating charter applicants and thereafter working with schools, we are interested in the proposed data collection from charter school authorizers. We have two general comments and three specific recommendations we present for your consideration.
Charter schools are the creation of state statutes and so the authority of the federal government in regulating them is limited. The federal government can offer grant funding and attach strings to that, and they can always enforce constitutional requirements relating to things such as civil rights. But, to our knowledge they have not tied any funds to authorizer functions, and the data collection requests proposed are not premised on remedying any due process or equal protection problems at the authorizer level. So, even where the authorizer is a direct recipient of federal funds, such as a state education department or a large district, we are not sure that the U.S. Department of Education can require that those authorizers provide the data.
The other issue is that many authorizers are more tangential in terms of extension of federal control. For instance, some authorizers are universities, some are independent boards that do nothing but authorize charter schools, and in a number of states (e.g., Ohio and Minnesota), most authorizers are non-profit organizations that authorize charter schools are part of a larger portfolio of work.
Given these factors, if the findings are to be generalizable, they would need to include many authorizers over which the Department has no discernible authority. Based on our experience working with authorizers, we think many or most authorizers might be willing to consensually complete the data request, analogous to most states signing onto the common core, because they see benefits to everyone contributing data. However, the benefits need to be balanced with the practical reality that there may be a limit to the time authorizers are willing to devote to collecting and reporting data on a voluntary basis. It is with this in mind that we suggest a few additions to the survey while being mindful of asking for data that may be difficult to collect may significantly reduce the survey response rate.
1. High-quality and readily accessible data can lead to informed decision making at the state, authorizer and charter school levels. Importantly, while described as “a national database of all charter authorizers and the schools they have charters” – the proposed survey does not appear to ask questions directly of the authorizers. For instance, it would be informative to not only confirm type (e.g., SEA, LEA, college/university, authorizer board or non-profit) but also gather information about individual authorizer operations. Examples of operational details that are not readily available at the national level but would be helpful in examining authorizer practice would be:
a. number or percentage of full-time equivalent personnel devoted to authorizer activities;
b. authorizer office budget or alternatively, source of funding (e.g., state or district budget or fees);
c. what if any fees authorizers charge charter schools; and
d. number of schools that have closed;
i. process of closure (e.g., revocation versus voluntary surrender of charter), and
ii. reason(s) for closure (e.g., enrollment, academic or financial).
We urge the Department to collect data on authorizers – in addition to the charter schools they oversee – to improve public transparency regarding their policies and procedures.
2. Question J currently provides an opportunity for the authorizer to indicate whether any charter schools have been established as an alternative school. However, students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are no longer included in the list of student populations who attend “alternative schools.” Given the removal of reference to IEPS in this question, we recommend you add an additional question that specifically addresses IDEA-eligible students to Section 3. This question would identify any school that primarily serves students receiving IDEA services, using the same 80% benchmark that defines alternative schools. This will better allow the public to understand which schools are primarily serving students with disabilities.
The disability community is concerned that charter schools established to serve only students with disabilities run counter to the least restrictive environment provisions of the IDEA that require students with disabilities to be educated alongside of their nondisabled peers, to the maximum extent appropriate. Yet, there are no current data available regarding how many schools are designed to primarily serve students with disabilities. More data regarding the prevalence of specialized schools will create an opportunity to have a more thoughtful discussion about these schools.
3. All public schools are required to abide by the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, the particular legal status of a school defines how the responsibility is fulfilled. That is, charter schools that are their own Local Education Agency (LEA) are solely responsible for provision of special education whereas charter schools that operate as part of an LEA share that responsibility with the larger LEA. Unfortunately, there is often confusion regarding the identification, evaluation, and provision of special education services. Quantifiable data regarding legal status will contribute to the general knowledge base about the extent to which charter schools are fulfilling their responsibilities related to IDEA. With this in mind, we suggest adding the following question to the survey:
(1) Of the charter schools currently overseen by you, how many are:
(a) part of a local educational agency (LEA)
(b) a separate LEA; or
(c) other (e.g., an LEA except for purposes related to IDEA)
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed authorizer data collection. Given that there are approximately 900 authorizers, which oversee the education of 2.5 million students currently enrolled in charter schools, we recognize the importance of collecting data in one central location to ensure information is transparent and publically accessible. Having this timely information both authorizers and charter schools will help stakeholders ensure that charter schools are truly a public school choice for all students.
Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D.
Executive Director and Co-Founder
National Center for Special Education in Charter School