The specialized-charter-school trend threatens to undermine IDEA's inclusion goals

Getty Images/Ridofranz

Lauren Morando Rhim

Some state charter school laws create the opportunity to open schools specifically for students with disabilities. Such schools may appeal to families who have not experienced success in their local public school and who simply cannot afford to wait for the reality of inclusion to catch up with the ideal. The rise in these schools, however, raises questions about their overall quality, whether their students are prepared when they move on to other schools, and whether they violate a central tenet of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment available.

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, of which I am the executive director, recently analyzed the federal Civil Rights Data Collection and found that there are at least 137 charter schools that specialize in serving students with disabilities. This means they identify this as their mission or more than half of their students qualify to receive special education services. There are long established charter schools designed for children with autism spectrum disorder, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairments, as well as newer ones serving students with learning disorders like dyslexia. One of the first was the Louisiana Key Academy (LKA), which was founded in 2013 by Laura Cassidy, M.D., wife of Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA). As she explained in a recent Flypaper piece, LKA is tailored to dyslexic students in the greater Baton Rouge region, and reflects the type of mission-driven schools that charter laws can spur within public education.

But specialized schools like LKA are nothing new, given the history of essentially warehousing students who learn differently. By targeting specific students, they unnecessarily separate those with disabilities, thereby limiting their access to the general education curriculum and preventing them from interacting with peers without disabilities. This violates IDEA’s least restrictive environment requirement.

Accordingly, there is concern that: (1) the growth of specialized charter schools may contravene IDEA’s broad goals; (2) this increase may lead to parents and students being counseled to enroll in schools based on their disability; and (3) specialized schools inherently cannot prepare students for the real world because they exist in a protected bubble that does not allow the parents or others exploring its usefulness or relevance to understand how it fits into ensuring students meet state standards.

I recognize the very real and immediate need for better options for students with disabilities, but we can accomplish this without sending them to separate schools. All schools should invest in professional development for general and special educators, as well as in programming that will help all complex learners, including students with dyslexia, thrive. Traditional public schools and public charter schools should also partner whenever possible to share best practices and leverage funding and resources to maximize school choice options for the communities they serve.

Even if a school specializes in serving students with disabilities, parents still need to do their research. Ask about the school’s teaching methods. Make sure it has high expectations for every child. Look at how its students are performing. And check on its its transition planning and services. LKA, for example, serves students through the seventh grade, so it is important to have a plan in place for eighth grade and high school. These transitions highlight the importance of having robust high-quality options throughout districts rather than concentrated within just one school.

Ultimately, special education is intended to help complex learners make progress on the general education curriculum and meet state requirements. In addition to violating IDEA by separately serving children with disabilities, it jeopardizes their success because appropriate supports and services are restricted to one type of school setting. State education agencies, therefore, must ensure that schools designed for students with disabilities educate them in the least restrictive environment, that their instruction and programming help complex learners meet state standards, and that their services can continue when a student moves on to another school.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the Executive Director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.