One of the toughest challenges facing charter schools, in Ohio and elsewhere, is the demands of serving children with special needs. Charter schools, like their district counterparts, educate any and all students who come to them (a fact still lost on many critics). When a youngster has special needs that require additional services, the charter school is required by state and federal law to provide them. The school receives state and federal aid to do so, but even with financial support, this can be daunting for a stand-alone school that serves only 200 or 300 students.
Providing quality special education services, as any charter or district coordinator can attest, is no simple matter. Special education is not just a set of programs delivered to students, but a comprehensive process for identifying, evaluating and monitoring (on a continual basis) the needs of students with disabilities ranging from mild or moderate to severe. Teachers and intervention specialists must identify and work with parents to refer an identified student for an evaluation. A psychologist, either on staff or contracted, must then evaluate him or her by assessing a broad range of cognitive, emotional and motor skills. Based on the evaluation, the school’s special education staff, along with the psychologist, educators and others, must then create an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The IEP will dictate the types of instruction and assistance the students should receive, and lists the goals and objectives for future progress.
Once a student’s IEP is developed, only then can programs and services be engaged to meet his or her unique needs. These programs and services can run the gamut, depending on the nature and severity of the disability--from one-on-one time with intervention specialists and pull-out sessions with speech pathologists or behavior therapists, to an entirely different education program that may necessitate clinical or medical support.
The challenge for many charter schools is how to provide the variety of services students might need (rarely can these needs be met by one individual) with limited financial resources, and absent the large-scale special education infrastructure available to school districts that serve thousands or even tens of thousands of children. Yet to do so is not only required by law, but also an integral function of ensuring all children receive a comprehensive and high quality education (the very reason many parents choose to enroll their students in charters in the first place).
Many charters in Ohio currently purchase special education services from their sponsors or authorizers. While this may seem a mutually beneficial arrangement for schools and their sponsors, it is less than ideal and potentially even unethical. It creates serious conflicts of interests for a charter school sponsor to sell academic (as well as financial or organizational) services to schools, and then hold them accountable for performance that has been driven in part by those services. Furthermore, a school might find itself unable to complain about services to the sponsor/provider for fear that such complaints might jeopardize the school’s standing. Schools could be even be pressured into buying services, regardless of their quality, from unscrupulous authorizers.
Other arrangements may include partnering with local service providers like hospitals or universities and buying à la carte services from county educational service centers or consultants. Yet even these piece-meal options can leave charters scrambling to find critical support for special education--including leadership training, special education teacher recruitment, and help navigating state and federal law. Additional support might consist of direct access to part-time therapists, psychologists and already scarce intervention specialists; ongoing professional development for special and general education teachers; access to external resources like clinical services and facilities; and programs for English Language Learners (ELL) requiring speech and language development services.
While there is no quick fix for this complex and growing challenge (indeed, more students are being identified with special needs each year), two options, among others, might be worth considering by school operators, policymakers, and charter school support organizations. The first is a Shared Special Education Director Program (discussed in detail in this Project Intersect report), which offers support to member schools seeking to build organizational capacity. A Shared Special Education Director Program provides schools with administrative, legal, and financial assistance to ensure compliance with federal and state laws. It also offers training to school staff about their roles and responsibilities in educating students with special needs. The Minnesota Department of Education currently operates such a program (through the Minnesota Charter Schools Special Education Project), whereby charter schools can purchase various levels of support based on their needs (general services are free). While not providing services directly to students, a Shared Special Education Director Program can alleviate many of the administrative and organizational demands facing schools, allowing school leaders and special education staff to focus more readily on instruction.
The second, more comprehensive option is a charter school special education cooperative or consortium. Under this model, a cooperative receives member schools’ special education funding directly (on a voluntary basis), and then provides needed special education services to their students. For charters who need specialists or programs on a part-time basis, the cooperative allows schools to share staff and services in a more cost efficient manner. Compelling models of such cooperatives already exist in Florida, Washington, DC and California. Across the line in Indiana, Ball State University’s Virtual Special Education Cooperative (VSEC) provides its charter school members with an array of programs and services, a large portion of which can be delivered online or via video conferencing. VSEC also retains a cadre of coordinators and therapists that can provide on-site therapeutic services, assessments and skills training to students--as well as professional development to teachers.
Through similar innovative partnerships and some creative thinking, Ohio’s charters could gain valuable assistance and guarantee their special education students reliable access to high quality programs and services.