Hoorah for charter schools serving kids with disabilities

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You might think the executive director of an organization called the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools would place the interests of children seeking the best possible special ed that charter schools can provide for them ahead of the policy preferences of IDEA (the federal special-ed law). You might even think that the fundamental precepts of school choice and parent preference might loom large in her mind. Alas, no. Lauren Morando Rhim’s wrong-headed and legalistic piece instead decries and deplores the existence of what she terms “specialized” charter schools, of which the U.S. already contains more than a hundred. These schools—which are created specifically to serve youngsters with disabilities, sometimes with particular disabilities—she faults for their failure to “mainstream” disabled students, even for isolating them from the “real world” and from others who share their learning challenges.

She appears to ignore a core tenet of charter schooling, which is the creation of educational options for kids and families that the regular public-education system is incapable of providing. She appears also to ignore a core tenet of school choice, which is that parents may be better judges of what their children need than distant bureaucrats and rulemakers—and that parents have a fundamental right to exercise such judgments on behalf of their daughters and sons. (Recall the Supreme Court’s seminal 1925 ruling: “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”)

Let’s remember, too, that while IDEA established the right of a child with disabilities to have access to a “free, appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive possible environment,” it did not obligate parents to subject their children to “mainstreaming.” What happens when they conclude that their daughter or son will be better served by a school that specializes in educating youngsters with that particular disability?

Hence the flurry among states to enact measures such as Florida’s pioneering “McKay Scholarship” program—vouchers so that youngsters with disabilities may, at the parents’ discretion, enroll in specialized private schools. Or Ohio’s Autism Scholarship program. And kindred programs in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah and Wisconsin. Yes, those are programs that make it possible for disabled youngsters to attend specialized private schools—but they arise from the exact same impulse that underlies specialized charter schools.

The same impulse drives parents who press their districts to send their kids to private schools—many of them specialized by disability and attended only by youngsters with that disability—to provide education services that the district is unable to offer, at least at the intensity and quality the parents demand. Lots of this goes on—and lot of lawyers make very comfortable livings by lubricating, expediting, and litigating on behalf of those parents.

No parent is required to send their child to such a school! Those who prefer their children to be “mainstreamed” can keep them in district-operated schools that are subject to the full panoply of IDEA-mandated rules and procedures. But like those specialized private schools, specialized charter schools exist to serve kids who don’t like (or aren’t well served by) the offerings of their district-operated schools. You might think that Ms. Rhim would both understand and celebrate that fact instead of faulting it for circumventing someone else’s priorities. 

 
 
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.