Massachusetts: Proactive on Special Education Policies and Practices
The Massachusetts Department of Education (MDE) has the widest possible scope of authority for charter schools and special education. It serves as authorizer for all of the 81 charter schools in Massachusetts and, as the state education agency (SEA), it also has statewide oversight authority for special education for all public schools.
MDE takes a proactive approach to these special education responsibilities and in many respects, serves as a model for states interested in setting high standards and articulating a clear, detailed set of policies and practices for serving students with disabilities in charter schools.
The relevant elements of MDE are its Office of Charter Schools & School Redesign and its Office of Special Education Planning & Policy. These offices work in tandem to provide the information charter schools need in order to serve students with diverse needs and to hold them accountable for doing so.
MDE has created an extensive array of guidance documents, compliance forms and helpful tools for use by charter schools, most of them accessible online. Many of these resources are available in the “Access and Equity” section of the MDE’s “Massachusetts Charter Schools” web page. See: http://www.doe.mass.edu/charter/sped/default.html?section=rights.
One particularly valuable offering is the three-part Massachusetts Primer on Special Education and Charter Schools, which can be accessed at that web page. The first section of the primer focuses on general information, the second part on information for state officials (such as special education authorities and authorizer staff) and the third part on charter school operators. Each section provides extensive links to further guidance, legal provisions, and other resources. Taken together, these narratives comprise a comprehensive guide to addressing special education in the state’s charter schools.
Beyond the primer, MDE offers resources on such topics as recruitment and retention plans for students with disabilities, information about metrics for how applicants for charter schools and for renewal of those schools will be judged regarding special education offerings and compliance, guidance on out-of-district placements, financial considerations, site visit protocols and observation forms, accountability and renewal, and more.
The contrast between the level of attention paid by MDE to special education policies and processes and that of many other authorizers is stark. Too often, special education is an afterthought for charter schools and authorizers alike. Even where it is a primary concern, most authorizers do not articulate the details of their standards and practices in a way that alerts schools to what is expected of them. Ultimately, that laxity has a negative impact on the children with disabilities who attend or seek to attend charter schools. Authorizers such as MDE that proactively make special education a priority show what’s possible.