There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the last week about whether charter schools are doing enough to enroll students with disabilities. But are we looking closely at who is among the learning disabled?

Are we looking closely at who is among the learning disabled?

The GAO’s report on charter schools and special education found that students with learning disabilities were the largest group benefitting from special services at the charter or district schools the government studied. That’s not surprising, given that learning-disabled students represented 38 percent of all students who received special education services in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rest were categorized with having varying disabilities, but autism and developmental disabilities made up just 12 percent of all students who received special services.

Education Sector interim chief John Chubb made a good case yesterday for why the best schools—district or charter—overcome learning disabilities with strong schooling and that it’s a mistake to presume there is a fixed percentage of special-needs students that ought to be enrolled at charter schools. But he doesn’t have a lot of company. Instead, charter critics and commentators have made this an issue of social justice, demanding that either charter schools do more to enroll high-needs students or at least acknowledge that they’re largely ignoring kids with special needs.

When education journalist John Merrow moderated the opening panel at last week’s conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Minneapolis, he repeatedly tried to get his panelists to concede the GAO found a big problem. But Rocketship Education co-founder John Danner pushed back and said the best schools can get to kids with the appropriate intervention before they need an Individualized Education Plan.

The GAO report doesn't do enough to highlight the strong schooling by charters that de-labels kids.

This is the fundamental shortcoming of the GAO report: It focuses more on the elusive factors that lead charter schools to enroll fewer students with disabilities than it does to highlight the strong schooling that de-labels kids. And shouldn’t we do more to de-label students? Wasn’t this why we developed Response to Intervention? And instead of coming up with quotas, shouldn’t our quest for justice look more toward the most enterprising charter schools that get students with disabilities into the general education population?

Consider Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy who berated charter authorizers in New York this month for establishing quotas that comply with a law requiring charters to enroll a higher share of students with special needs. Moskowitz said her school network is adept at getting high-needs kids into the general-education population. The quotas, she argued, would only “institutionalize perverse incentives to over-identify students with disabilities…”

We’re not talking about children with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. This is a case for the ability of strong schooling to overcome the learning disabilities that are predominate among the 6.5 million children nationwide receiving special education services. The best (not all) charter schools know how to do this. So do the best district schools. But to learn from this will take a fundamentally different conversation than the one we’ve been having.

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