At a recent convening of the National Center for Special Education in Charter School’s (NCSECS) Equity Coalition, a panel discussed the question “who is looking out for students with disabilities in high-choice environments?” The conversation was sparked, in part, by the collective impact of several recent closures of nonpublic specialized schools and charter schools with programs for students with significant disabilities in Washington, D.C.
The D.C. story is noteworthy because it highlights how, as authorizers seek to grow innovative and diverse school models—including those that are focused on special education—they must also continue to ensure all schools can effectively serve all students.
Panelists raised concerns that certain populations of students, such as students with disabilities, may fall through the cracks in local educational systems with lots of choice. Although choice systems can give parents a much greater say in how their child’s educational needs are met, students with special needs are left worse off if individual schools aren’t meeting their obligations to serve every student.
Legal responsibility for providing services to students with disabilities is clear: the local education agency, in most cases the charter school or the district of residence, is ultimately responsible for ensuring all students receive the special education services they require and to which they are entitled.
But authorizers occupy an important position to ensure that these students not only have access to educational options, but that all charter schools are prepared to help them excel.
That’s why NACSA and NCSECS collaborated to create the Special Education Toolkit, a set of resources to assist authorizers fulfill their responsibilities and ensure schools in their portfolio live up to expectations. Authorizers have several opportunities throughout the charter lifecycle to test a charter school’s ability to effectively serve all students: at the application phase, throughout the term of the charter through regular oversight and monitoring, and at renewal.
One of NACSA’s three principles of high-quality authorizing is “protecting student and public interests.” Protecting the most vulnerable student populations, including those with special educational needs, is of paramount importance for quality authorizing. While legal responsibility for meeting special education needs ultimately falls on the local education agency, authorizers play a vital role in ensuring charter schools are prepared and able to take on this challenge.
Additionally, there is some evidence to indicate a growing number of charter schools are specifically designed to serve special education students. NCSECS’ analysis of Office of Civil Rights data indicates the number of special education focused charter schools grew by 40 percent from 2013 to 2016. That said, the model is still far from prevalent, as evidenced in NACSA’s own Pipeline Project, where just 2 percent of all charter schools proposed were specifically focused on special education (45 total proposals in our 20 state sample). Nonetheless, as the frequency of these applications continue to increase, authorizers may need to rethink how they review and evaluate these specialized school models.
As the charter sector matures, authorizers continue to play an important role in ensuring that the sector meets every community’s needs. This requires authorizers to be prepared to evaluate a wide range of proposals while still maintaining a high standard for approval, as well as ensuring that all charter schools—regardless of their model and mission—are fulfilling their legal obligations to all students, including those with special education needs.
Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal legislation and creates policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org