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Opinion: Finding the Right Fit for Charters and Special-Needs Students

Accusations that charters don’t want to deal with special-ed costs and challenges are getting us — and our children — nowhere

laura waters
Laura Waters

Within the foxholes of New Jersey’s charter school wars, the target de jour is special education, specifically the accusation by school-choice opponents that alternative public schools intentionally discriminate against children with special needs. In posh Princeton, the charter school there just received approval to expand its enrollment by 76 students, and a primary line of attack is that Princeton Charter School enrolls far fewer students with disabilities.

Up north in underprivileged Newark, the Education Law Center is marshalling resources to launch an assault against the approval of a 7,500-seat expansion of seven high-performing charter schools. According to ELC executive director David Sciarra, one of the ways that charters afflict traditional districts is through the “segregation of students by disability.”

In other words, the current bullet point of those opposed to charter expansion in New Jersey is aimed at the under-enrollment of students with costly disabilities (as opposed to more readily remediated specific learning disabilities). But what if this line of attack is wrong? And wouldn’t it be more productive for children if we looked at the potential role of the charter-school sector in the world of special education instead of looking at the lack of special education services in the charter-school sector?

Facing the facts

Let’s start with some facts. In the interest of full disclosure, my husband and I are parents of four wonderful kids and our youngest has multiple disabilities due to a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome. Like other families raising children with moderate to severe disabilities, we are natives in a land that we’d rather not live in but can adequately navigate. So here’s the map:

Children who qualify for special education services are a protected group who are placed in schools through a lengthy, meticulous process dictated by federal and state law. Typically, the “child study team” — a case manager, special education teacher, various therapists, and, most importantly, the parents — collaborate on a list of services (therapies, adaptive equipment, modifications to curricula, classroom environmental necessities) deemed necessary for the child to maximize his or her educational potential, as well as annual goals, objectives, and measurements of progress. Only after reaching consensus does the team consider placement which, according to law, must be in the “least restrictive environment (LRE).” LREs run the gamut from general-education classrooms with typical peers all the way to residential placements. If there is no consensus then the parents have access to due process and litigation.

To be clear: charter schools, or any schools for that matter, don’t just “take” kids with disabilities. Enrollment is a matter delegated to child study teams.

In other words, the anti-choice cadre’s claim that charters don’t enroll proportional numbers of special needs children is true. But if they believe that this disproportionality is a result of charter discrimination then they demonstrate a complete ignorance of special education law. If they know the law (a more likely scenario) then they are duplicitously relying on the ignorance of others. Certainly, if a child study team agreed that the best place to meet the services listed in the student’s individualized education plan was, say, KIPP or Princeton Charter School, then the student would, I suppose, enroll in the lottery (both schools’ demand for seats outpaces availability) or, perhaps, the state could pass a law allowing special treatment. But that wouldn’t work either.

Why? Because right now parents of special needs children — not those with mild specific learning disabilities but those like my son — are unlikely to sign off on placements in charter schools. Two years ago, Bellwether Education Partners produced a national report on public charter enrollment. Researchers found that while charters across the country enroll higher percentages of low-income, black, and Latino students than traditional district schools, they enroll lower percentages of students with disabilities. Some of the reasons that parents rejected charters as placements were that “parents of students with disabilities may be more risk-averse,”  “parents of students with disabilities may be able to use IEP process to get services from the district,”  “transportation poses a particular barrier for students with disabilities,” “lower charter special education rates may reflect use of effective strategies to prevent or remediate common learning challenges,” and “district special education rates may reflect over-identification of students with disabilities.”

Serving all students

This doesn’t mean that charter schools can’t do a better job of attracting parents of special needs children. They should, and some are beginning that process. For example, the renaissance schools in Camden enroll all children in their catchment area — there, these hybrid charter/traditional schools are regular neighborhood schools — and charters have created, for example, self-contained classes for students diagnosed with autism that employ the gold standard treatment of Applied Behavioral Analysis.

The problem of disproportionate disability education in New Jersey, of course, runs deeper than charter schools. We classify more kids as eligible for special education services than any other state and spend more as well. Our fragmented school infrastructure — more districts per square mile than any other state in the country — impedes student placement in home districts and lays fertile ground for our thriving industry of private special-education schools.

For example, let’s say a typically small district has two nonverbal/low-functioning children about the same age who are on the autistic spectrum. While ideally that district would abide by IDEA and keep those children in-district to comply with the “least restrictive environment” mandate, that would require, at the least, a separate classroom, an occupational therapy room, a teacher trained in Applied Behavior Analysis, and an instructional aide. That’s a scenario that is often fiscally and structurally unfeasible. So the district, after the child study team process, pays tuition for those kids to attend a larger district, the County Special Services district, or a private school.

Winfield school district in Union County enrolls 145 K-8 students in one building supported by an annual operating budget of $3,283,831. Twenty of those students or 14 percent — one out of every six — are sent to special education out-of-district placements. Winfield’s enrollment is simply too small to assemble the necessary cohorts of special needs children to educate them in-district.

Complicated questions

In other words, special education enrollment is complicated, for both charter and traditional public schools. And it’s more complicated in New Jersey than just about anywhere else, given our crazy-quilt infrastructure that impedes scale. You want to talk money?  The New Jersey DOE maintains a list of approved tuition rates for private special-education schools. For children with high-cost disabilities like autism, annual tuition is as high as $129,393.99.

Can charters help? How can they fit into the world of special education?

Perhaps larger charter operators could follow the lead of KIPP and Uncommon and create self-contained programming. Perhaps we could consider whether all public schools, traditional or charter, must reflect local demographics. (Exclusionary magnet schools don’t seem to bother ELC or Save Our Schools-NJ). Perhaps the DOE could continue to authorize charter schools that specifically serve children with disabilities; the very first one will open next year.

Public charter schools are here to stay and here to expand, whether one lives in Princeton or Newark. As this state continues to struggle to provide a thorough and effective education for our most challenged students, charter schools just may be able to help if we treat them as partners in this inclusive enterprise called public education instead of aiming for their jugular.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left BehindNew York School TalkEducation Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president.

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