The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (the Center) grew out of an increasing recognition that tackling the challenges emerging at the intersection of special education and charter schools would require a focused and sustained effort. In 2012, a group of committed, but frustrated, experts met to brainstorm about strategies to elevate and address the challenges associated with students with disabilities accessing and succeeding in charter schools and ideally, supporting the sector to leverage its autonomy to develop exemplary programs for students with disabilities. That meeting led to a series of follow-up conversations about the lack of progress that the charter sector had seen to date in how it serves students with disabilities. There were plenty of good things happening, but people doing this work did not talk to each other, or to special educators outside of the charter world. Too often school and authorizer standards and expectations for students with disabilities were too low. The group collectively determined that nothing was likely to change unless somebody created an organization that was solely focused on ensuring that students with disabilities could access and thrive in charter schools. With critical guidance from founding board members Robin Lake, Margaret McLaughlin, and Alex Medlar, Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill agreed to team up and launch the Center.
Lauren and Paul came from different but complementary backgrounds. She is an education researcher who has had a hand in most of the research regarding special education in charter schools. Paul is an education lawyer specializing in charter school work and in special education law. Together they created an organization deeply committed to expanding the educational opportunities for students with disabilities in the charter sector.
Currently serving 2.3 million students in 43 states and Washington, DC, charter schools are public schools of choice granted varying degrees of autonomy from state laws in exchange for accountability for meeting student performance goals. As public schools, charter schools are required to abide by federal laws and regulations such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—laws related to educating students with disabilities. Research has documented that charter schools often struggle to amass adequate capacity to provide quality special education programs and must navigate complex systems that did not anticipate the creation of schools that function as single school districts or semi-autonomous schools within a district. Consequently, more than 20 years into the evolution of the sector, charter schools have not effectively leveraged the autonomy granted by state charter school laws to benefit students with disabilities. Many stakeholders simply do not trust charter schools to welcome and support students who learn differently and can be challenging and expensive to educate.
In response to compelling needs in the charter school sector, Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill launched the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (the Center) in October 2013. The Center is the first organization to focus solely on proactively working with states, charter authorizers, special education and charter school advocates and other stakeholders to raise awareness, improve access, create dynamic learning opportunities and address barriers that may impede charter schools’ enrolling and effectively educating students with disabilities. The Center’s work is guided by four priorities:
- Document & communicate vital facts to policy makers, advocates and authorizers about the status and progress of students with disabilities in charter schools;
- Inform policy at state and federal levels to address barriers and create opportunities for charter schools to enroll and provide effective instructional programs and individualized support to students with disabilities;
- Develop coalitions and form essential partnerships to both protect student rights and honor the core tenets of the charter sector: choice, autonomy and accountability; and,
- Build capacity for excellence in the field that translates to exemplary supports and services for students with disabilities in the charter sector.
Since its launch, the Center has been actively reviewing and commenting on policy, writing papers, building key partnerships linking the special education and charter school communities, and engaging in targeted assistance in the charter sector in select regions.