Time for Charters to Lead on Special Education

Last week I jumped all over Andy Smarick on Twitter for suggesting that practices like the DC Public Charter School Board’s Secret Shopper program (where staff pretend to be parents searching for a school for a child with a disability) and requiring charter schools to take students mid-year place the needs of a small number of students over the good of the whole. Citing a long list of philosophers, Andy argued that in dogged pursuit of equity we risk undercutting successful efforts to help students.

Legal issues aside,* Andy raises a commonly held argument from charter advocates and a compelling theoretical perspective: “We can’t save some kids if you expect every school to be everything to everybody.” The famous Lifeboat Dilemma comes to mind: there is a point at which pulling one more person into a lifeboat compromises everyone’s future. I get it.

*Of course, any charter school that is its own Local Education Agency cannot legally exclude or “counsel out” students with special needs unless the state law makes some special provision. Parents have the right to decide, with their IEP team, which school offers the best and Least Restrictive Environment for their child. What Andy is suggesting, I guess, is that authorizers should not too strenuously enforce the law.

But here’s the problem. Charter supporters invoke this dilemma all too easily and abstractly. While it’s obvious that the weight of one more person can swamp a boat, the analogy is misleading when it comes to schools. The lifeboat analogy allows a school to define its own risk to avoid admitting a student. It lets a school unilaterally decide not to serve someone.

Image of a lifeboat

This is personal for me. I have firsthand experience being told that the boat is too full for my family.

My son wasn’t disruptive and didn’t need specialized instruction when we were shopping for kindergarten. But he did need some flexibility and understanding from his teachers, as well as a warm, caring, and intellectually stimulating environment. Lacking a charter school option here in Washington, we first turned to private schools. School after school told us that he just wasn’t a good “fit.”

We tried public schools that had special programs for my son but they didn’t serve him well. Finally, we bullied our way into a great public school that had discouraged us on the basis of “fit.” Once there, my son thrived and the administrators admitted that they had been wrong. Not only did he “fit,” he was an asset to the school. They loved him. Yes, teachers had to stretch sometimes and figure out new approaches to instruction and discipline, but far from compromising their classrooms, they felt it strengthened their teaching and the other kids’ humanity.

What I’ve learned, and what countless other parents have no doubt learned, is that “fit” is hard to predict. Sometimes parents know best. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes schools have legitimate concerns for not taking a student, such as lack of expertise or capacity. But often there are darker dynamics at play. It’s easier to exclude one family than to explain a disruptive incident to 400 families. It’s also just a lot easier for teachers and principals to serve kids who don’t need extra attention. All too often, public, private, and public charter schools send the soft message that kids with significant differences are not welcome.

To be clear, I firmly believe that charter schools must be allowed to maintain a strong, distinctive organizational culture and instructional approach. They offer a critical alternative to the one-size-fits-all generic public education system. They should not be asked to bend to every parent’s demands. But we also need an alternative to the selective, often exclusionary practices of private schools. When families are in the desperate situation where private schools won’t take their child and public schools won’t meet his needs, charter schools sometimes offer the only hope.

Andy is correct that there is an inherent tension in asking a school to both focus and serve all students who want to attend. But it is a tension that can be managed. Cities like DC, Denver, and New Orleans are finding ways to help stand-alone charter schools have access to special education services, adequate financial resources, and grant dollars to create innovative approaches to special education. With these supports in place, there is no evidence that serving more kids with disabilities detracts from the experience of other students. In fact, charter schools’ flexibility and mandate for innovation perfectly position them to lead other public schools toward more personalized learning for all kids. Collegiate Academy and ReNew Schools, both leading no-excuses charter schools in New Orleans, are examples of this innovation. So are STRIVE and DSST in partnership with Denver Public Schools.

Unlike lifeboats, schools should have strong incentives to admit every child. They should have to make a serious effort to serve them well. But they also need options if one student is making it impossible for the school to serve others. These conditions can only be met if there is some level of oversight and organization so that schools receive help when they are struggling to meet a student’s needs, and families receive help when they need an option beyond their current school. None of this is easy. Schools will still have incentives to duck what look like hard cases, and try to be free riders, so there is need for authorizers to analyze admissions patterns and identify schools that try to free-ride. New Orleans is one of the best examples of how this can work system-wide. We wrote about their systemic approach to special education here and Adam Hawf, former deputy superintendent at the Louisiana Recovery School District, will be guest blogging about that soon.

As I see it, the charter movement has a choice. It can act like it is part of a system of schools, as is happening in many portfolio cities, to facilitate parent choice and resolve tensions when they arise. Or, it can treat students with disabilities and behavioral or other challenges as somebody else’s “problem.” That is what’s happening in places like Detroit, where the weak and collapsing school district is becoming the provider of last resort for special needs. In my view, charter advocates are currently talking out of both sides of their mouths, arguing that the movement can be a scalable systemic solution for all students, yet not consistently acting like it is one.

To be sure, enrollment numbers don’t tell the whole story. Parents may not choose to enroll in charter schools at the same rates as traditional schools. There is also growing evidence that Special Ed enrollment numbers can look artificially low, as some charter schools choose to intervene and address learning or behavior challenges rather than label students with a disability. These are important nuances. But unmet needs and illegal practices are a problem to be solved urgently, not swept under the rug, by reformers.

I’d like to see leaders of the best charter schools and CMOs decide that they must be the solution for the most vulnerable and challenging (and often the most promising and amazing) students. I’d like to see them challenge their well-meaning friends who seek to protect them with lifeboat thinking. I’d like to see them demand that authorizers employ secret shopper programs and work for systemic special education solutions. I’d like to see charter schools do in Special Education what they do best: tackle tough challenges and prove what’s possible.

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