Charter hopes

The new Hopes, Fears and Reality report by the National Charter School Research Project is out. I helped write the chapter on special education in charter schools, which is why I was in D.C. earlier this week.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne:

    I just tore through your chapter on students with special needs in charter schools. You have selected some excellent examples to show that students with special needs can be educated alongside students with regular(?) needs successfully. As you note–examples are a bit difficult to locate. I was particularly struck by the one principal who pointed to the school’s mission as primary–overriding any “academic freedom” issues of teachers who might better serve elsewhere.

    You note that some charters are masters at responding to the needs of, and including, students with mild disabilities. My problem–based on my experience–is that the charters are not an “answer,” and may even still be too few to provide a beacon in the darkness. In my midwestern state–with a pretty good leg-up on charters, as I read some of the national reporting–we have a very mixed bag. We have a lot of folks with more dream than solid management knowledge. It’s hard to know how well they do academically, because they generally close their doors due to other reasons. We have a pretty broad base of schools operating about as well as the urban public schools (not much to aspire to). Their primary draw seems to be that their are nicer to parents, or they offer something that appears to promise better discipline or sense of what they are about (uniforms, science or math curriculum, etc). We have a very small handful of the type that you suggest do well with kids who have mild disabilities. They have a mission that suggests that every kid doesn’t march to the same drummer, they probably do support a fair amount of academic freedom, they manage to provide more individualized support overall–and they live in terror of being overcome by students with severe disabilities or other problems. As the parent of a child with disabilities, I can attest that their are lots of ways to convince a parent that their child would be better off somewhere else. There are also some hazy areas of discrimination (tabling an application until complete records and IEP are obtained from the home school–when the school is filled), the possibility of telling some parents that the school is filled while taking other students, explaining that their charter doesn’t require them to take all students (this would be a violation of the law).

    My own experience with my son is that when the public system reached the point at which they would rather see him drop out than graduate (if it meant that they had to alter anything that they were willing to do), the best available option was a for-profit charter that has identified a market niche in serving kids that nobody else wants. I wouldn’t say that they are providing an excellent education, possible not even a good one–but at the end of the road there will be a diploma. And they are completely self-paced (read: computerized individual instruction). As a bonus, I have had really good contact with the school’s psychologist–who is committed to seeing that every kid with special needs leaves with an IEP that they can carry on to post-secondary if that is where they will go.

    In short–I think that charters may have the freedom to explore ways in which students with special needs may be better integrated into the regular population–and learn. I also firmly believe that the public schools have far more leeway than they exercise (I am thinking of your example of the kid who got a mini-tramp to work out excess energy in the charter–in the public he got an aide to hold him down).

    We really need a vast sea change in public opinion towards the population of people who are disabled. We still have far to many people who believe that they (or their children) have a right to an education that is untouched by the needs of others, or that students with special needs are taking over somehow. It’s far from the case–but as long as that belief is maintained–the small islands of quality inclusion that exist are always in danger of becoming the new segregated classrooms and schools.