If you watched the movie Waiting for Superman, an exploration of the current state of the public school system in the United States, I’m sure your heart strings were pulled as you watched one of the young students journey through the community charter school lottery system with hopes to be accepted to a charter school that would provide a better education than the local public school. The hope for a better future becomes a reality for some but others are crushed with disappointment. Charter schools continue to be on the forefront of change in the education system in the United States but are charter schools positive change for all students? In some cases yes but in other cases, such as students receiving special education services, it is not always so.
The Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings recently released a report on charter schools and the role of the federal government. The report, “Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education” points out that “the overall body of research on the academic effectiveness of charter schools suggests considerable variability in impact.” Yet, charter schools are sure to be an important element in the conversations that will take place during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) expected to be taken up in the new 112th Congress.
The federal role in promoting charter schools was relatively minor prior to the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. ARRA provided the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan with a $650 million innovation fund from which awards were to be made to education entities that had made significant gains in closing achievement gaps, including in charter schools. It also provided the Secretary with $4 billion to carry out Race to the Top; a competition among states to support school reform and innovation in public education. Under the rules established for Race to the Top, states have to meet a number of requirements for their support of charter schools in order to receive an award. The requirements include: lifting caps on the number of charter schools, establishing authorizing practices that hold charter schools accountable for student achievement, ensuring equitable per student funding, and providing facilities assistance. The actions taken by the Department of Education foreshadow the stance the Obama Administration will take towards charter schools in the reauthorization of the ESEA.
One part of the debate is whether charter schools are actually willing to educate and serve all students with disabilities, including those with learning disabilities. Evidence of charter schools’ unwillingness to serve students with disabilities was explored during a hearing in the House of Representative on Feb 24, 2010. According to experts, “research on the participation of special populations and charters demonstrates that in most places these students are under-represented.”
Another part of the debate includes a push to open charter schools designed to serve only students with disabilities or even one particular disability. NCLD remains wary of a model designed to serve strictly students with disabilities, such as learning disabilities. This approach undermines the “least restrictive environment (LRE)” principle of educating students with disabilities by segregating students from their typical peers. So, charter schools that are achieving success in educating students with disabilities — as well as those that have minimized the need to identify students with a learning disability through early and effective interventions — should be viewed as resources for practices that can be replicated by thousands of traditional public schools nationwide. Parents of students with disabilities have worked for decades to have their children welcomed and taught at their local public school. To support a model that moves us away from inclusion and back into segregated settings makes this parent really uncomfortable.
We are deeply interested in learning more from you about this popular yet controversial way to deliver a public education. So tell us about your experience. Are charter schools available where you live? How have they/have not supported the education of children with LD? For more information regarding NCLD’s policy recommendations for charter schools, please review the Charter Schools and Students with Learning Disabilities Policy Brief.