Special Education Strides Highlighted at National Charter Schools Conference

In his recent keynote address at the National Charter Schools Conference, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged charter schools to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. “I want to see charters pioneering solutions that do a better job of educating students with disabilities,” he told the gathering last month of more than 4,000 charter school leaders in Washington, D.C.

The conference, organized annually by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, provided a variety of sessions with a special education focus. Was there a common thread? Yes, strong partnerships make for better services for students with disabilities.

ED’s Ruth Ryder and John DiPaolo, representing the Office of Special Education Programs and the Office for Civil Rights, respectively, outlined charter schools’ legal responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to provide services for students with disabilities by ensuring they’re provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) without discriminating due to disability.

Tameria Lewis from Washington D.C.’s E.L. Haynes Public Charter School offered suggestions for how charters can meet those legal responsibilities, including strong partnerships with state education agencies (SEAs), local school districts, parents, and disability organizations. For example, not only can SEAs clarify important and sometimes complex state-specific disability rules that impact charter schools, but some states have a high-cost pool to help fund specialized placements that students with disabilities may require and that charters may be responsible for providing as part of a student’s right to FAPE under the IDEA.

The legal requirement to provide a continuum of alternative placements for students with disabilities is often a challenge for charter schools, according to Ryder. Panelists from California described how the nation’s second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD), has reorganized to design a model that offers a full continuum of options for charter schools to provide for students with disabilities. LAUSD and its charter schools have worked together to build a special education infrastructure in charter schools that supports access to a full continuum of services and allows LAUSD and charter schools to mutually benefit from the programs, services, and expertise available in both district-operated and charter programs.

Lauren Rhim from LMR Consulting and Renita Thukral from the National Alliance for Public Charter schools facilitated a conversation focused on leveraging the benefits of networks to achieve economies of scale for purchasing, centralized expertise, access to specialized technical and legal supports, and pooled professional development resources to ensure that charter schools are open and accessible to students with disabilities and positioned to develop exemplary programs. Representatives from the D.C. Special Education Co-operative and the District of Columbia’s LAMB Public Charter School presented strategies for another type of partnership: investing in charter schools’ general education staff to raise student achievement among special education students in inclusive classrooms.

Secretary Duncan’s remarks noted an overall charter mindset shift over the years, from conflict to co-conspirators. For students with disabilities, conference presenters believe working together is often the key to improving results.

Susan Murray is an education program specialist in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services’ Office of Special Education Programs.

The references to specific projects within this article does not constitute an endorsement by the Department of any particular practice, intervention, or activity being carried under these projects, or imply that other ED projects are not carrying out important and high-quality activities.