After 20 years studying special education in charter schools, Lauren Morando Rhim saw little progress.
The conversation about special ed in charter schools is all about whether charter schools should accept students with learning disabilities, she said, not about sharing ideas and information on exceptional charter programs so others can learn from them. And nothing was changing.
In an effort to change the conversation, Rhim cofounded the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools in October.
“[The center] addresses a critical need in the charter movement,” said James Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “Special education has not received the attention and the support it really needs among charter schools, and I think the center is going to be helpful to charter schools as they step forward to meet the needs of kids who have special challenges.”
About 20 percent of students have a learning disability, Wendorf said. That includes the 10 to 15 percent of students who have dyslexia, and others with attention-deficit disorders or hearing impairments. Learning disabilities are not correlated with intelligence, he said.
A recent study showed learning-disabled students in charter schools outperform their peers in math, but charter schools can improve to serve more students.
A big part of the problem, Rhim and Wendorf both said, is a misperception of what it means to have a learning disability.
“Learning disabilities are essentially invisible,” Wendorf said. “There’s sometimes a ‘myth of mildness’ because these disabilities are invisible, but for any person who struggles with dyslexia or another kind of learning disability, the struggles are very real and can cause tremendous challenges and difficulties.”
Most special-needs students can learn in the regular classroom with minor support, Rhim said.
“They can learn on par with their peers, once they’re provided with those supports,” she said.
Lower Expectations a Problem
Disabled students often suffer from lower expectations, she said.
“This isn’t necessarily malicious, but people say, ‘Oh, they have a disability, we don’t want to push them too much,’ when really there’s decades of research, with exceptions for kids with the most severe disabilities, we really should try to keep our expectations as high as possible,” she said. “Those expectations are so critically important in terms of how students see themselves and how other students see them and how their teachers see them.”
Some charter schools offer great programs for special-needs students, whereas others don’t want to enroll them, Rhim said. Most fall somewhere in between.
“Much of the dialogue about special education in charter schools now wants to paint charter schools with a homogeneous brush, [as if] all charter schools discriminate,” she said. “That’s not accurate. There’s a whole continuum.”
Working with Schools, Policymakers
The center will work with policymakers and others who decide what programs the schools can offer.
“As a country, we have come a long way in our efforts to provide better educational opportunities for students with disabilities, but there is more work to be done,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in a statement. “Because of the flexibility charter schools are given to innovate to serve their students, they are well positioned to give special needs children a world-class public education.”
As for policy, Rhim said she would like to see clear laws about how special ed is handled, and laws that address fair distribution of public education money.
Charter schools are public schools, but in many cases they receive less funding than traditional public schools, making it more difficult to serve students with disabilities, Rhim said.
“The ideal would be that all charter schools welcome a diverse array of kids with disabilities and have the skills necessary to offer really high-quality programs to support kids with disabilities,” she said.
The goal is, “in a nutshell, moving the conversation from compliance to actually exceptional programs and outcomes for kids with disabilities.”
“Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools,” National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, October 2013: http://heartland.org/policy-documents/improving-access-and-creating-exceptional-opportunities-students-disabilities-publi.
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