Helping Students with Disabilities Navigate Public School Options

Charter schools have been a boon to many students, especially those in large cities. In theory, that should include the roughly 14 percent of public school students who have disabilities.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Too many students with disabilities don’t achieve their potential in public education, and the expansion of school choice via charter schools hasn’t done much to change that reality.

We need a multi-pronged, citywide strategy to turn the situation around, one that aligns a range of stakeholders on behalf of students with disabilities to ensure they’re able to select the traditional public schools or public charter schools that best meets their needs. Here’s what it should look like:

A dynamic parent information system

In order for parents of students with disabilities to take advantage of enrollment options in both traditional and charter public schools, they need detailed information on schools’ ability to meet their children’s specific needs, information that too often doesn’t exist.

To address the problem, cities need school information systems that include schools’ specific areas of special education expertise. Think of an educational “Yelp” or “”

School-wide expertise

While all public schools struggle to provide individualized supports to students with disabilities in inclusive settings, this becomes a unique challenge in charter schools, which often lack the schoolwide expertise needed to educate students with a diverse range of disabilities with their peers.

A coordinated, citywide approach would help address this problem: Every school would develop schoolwide expertise in educating students with high-incidence disabilities like speech and language impairments, while taking responsibility for developing specialized expertise for students with select low-incidence disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder or emotional disturbance.

If all schools committed to building the capacity to respond to both high-incidence disabilities and selective more-challenging but lower-incidence disabilities in inclusive settings, every student in the city would have multiple schools to choose from and be assured that the school of their choice has the specialized expertise they need to be successful.

As an alternative to developing expertise in address more acute disabilities, traditional and charter public schools could choose to pay the cost of placing their students in a different school’s program that the original schools’ individualized education program (IEP) teams determined to be well-suited to support the students.

A weighted lottery

Citywide public school enrollment lottery systems would streamline the school-enrollment process for parents and ensure fair access for all students.

Universal enrollment systems have become more common across the country. These systems simplify the public school application process for parents by creating a single, centralized entity to manage enrollment in both traditional and charter public schools. While individual models vary, universal enrollment systems such as those in Boston, Kansas City, and New Orleans use lotteries and algorithms to give students equal access to the range of schools in a city and to match students to their top-choice schools.

Some cities weight their lotteries, giving preference to targeted student characteristics. In the District of Columbia, for example, students are given preferences at schools if they have siblings who are already enrolled.

Citywide enrollment lotteries should incorporate preferences for students with disabilities (if the students choose to disclose their disabilities) at schools offering programs aligned with their needs, as well as to schools that enroll fewer than the district average of students with disabilities. The process would be “adaptive,” the weighting would disappear in each admissions cycle once schools enrolled a proportionate share of students with disabilities relative to other schools in the city.

Common-enrollment systems have the added benefit of being good platforms for providing the comparative school information that families of students with disabilities need to participate effectively in public school choice systems.

Adequate, fair special education funding

Funding is a challenge for almost all public schools across the country, but there are particular challenges associated with special education in charter schools. Funding for public schools is done on a per-pupil basis, and dollars are allocated according to where students enroll and typically increase when students require extra support, such as special education services or specialized placements in separate classrooms or schools. This structure creates the risk that schools will have incentives to over-identify students with disabilities or to serve such students apart from their peers who don’t have disabilities.

Some cities have identified promising local solutions to these challenges. New Orleans maintains a special-purpose fund through which local schools can apply for the supplementary revenue necessary to cover the costs associated with serving students requiring significant support. To ensure that these additional dollars reflect appropriate expenses aligned with student needs, New Orleans uses third-party expert reviewers to ensure requested funds align with the services being provided to students with disabilities, as outlined in their IEP and other legal documentation.

A robust human capital strategy

Talented educators are the foundation of effective special education, but charter schools often lack the hiring infrastructure of traditional public school systems, making it harder for them to create robust professional pipelines. While approaches and needs vary by city, several best practices can strengthen the special-education workforce.

Both traditional and charter schools are already employing creative strategies for recruiting and professional development. For example, the Chime Institute has an established partnership with California State University, Northridge to train interns who then return to the school as teachers. The Special Education Leader Fellowship program in New Orleans cultivates a commitment to high expectations for every student. Cohorts of schools in cities such as Charlotte, Chicago, and Memphis have adopted Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture’s new staffing models that leverage highly skilled lead teachers to build the skills of less-experienced teachers or provide an alternative pathway to certification. And Washington State has created targeted develop-your-own initiatives that train paraprofessionals to secure full teaching credentials.

The specifics of a human capital strategy are naturally dependent on a community’s resources. Using these local resources is critical to building an effective staffing strategy that addresses shortages in areas such as special education.

An effective special education infrastructure

Charter schools are also challenged by the complexities of navigating federal, state and, in some instances, local rules and regulations around educating students with disabilities.

A central infrastructure providing specialized instructional, regulatory, legal, and technical expertise to charter schools (and potentially to traditional public schools) would provide a solution to this problem and build schoolwide charter school special education capacity more broadly. Charter schools in Nashville and New York have established collaboratives for delivering special education teacher training and technical assistance that could be used as models for developing local capacity to provide quality special education services.

Nuanced, growth-oriented accountability systems

The failure of current charter accountability structures to recognize or reward students’ academic growth and focus only on absolute performance has the effect of penalizing schools for enrolling students with disabilities. Charter authorizers, which oversee charter schools’ performance, should incorporate metrics to evaluate and reward schools for effectively educating students with disabilities.

These metrics would involve tracking total special-education enrollment and enrollment by disability type, attendance, mobility, performance, growth, and discipline. Authorizers would then create a nuanced accountability system that measures a school by the progress it has made with students with disabilities.

Together, these strategies could go a long way toward establishing a cohesive, citywide infrastructure to support students with disabilities navigating urban systems of traditional and chartered public schools.

Lauren Morando Rhim is executive director and co-founder of the Center for Learner Equity, formerly the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. She is author of A Strategic City-Based Framework for Effectively and Efficiently Educating Students with Disabilities.