In a recent commentary on this blog, I expressed concern regarding the growth of specialized charter schools: that is, schools designed solely or primarily to educate students with disabilities. Regrettably, my commentary failed to convey the nuance this complex and important topic deserves. The National Center for Special Education Charter Schools (NCSECS), and I as its founding executive director, support the creation of a wide range of high-quality educational environments for students with disabilities. And many of the specialized charter schools currently operating across the country are providing excellent and legally compliant educational options to students.

While I support the concept of specialized charter schools, I do so in ways that are highly context-specific, and with an awareness of the risks these schools can create. Continued authorization and growth of specialized charter schools requires care and precision given the potential unintended consequences, which could include: limiting choices for students, driving students into unnecessarily restrictive settings, and decreasing accountability and expectations. Each of these risks is elaborated more fully below along with a few examples of why these apprehensions require consideration.

Limitation of choice

Growth of specialized charter schools designed to provide parents with choice could have the unintended consequence of actually limiting choice. That is, while students with a specific disability may be steered toward a specialized school, other schools may limit the supports and services they provide given the existence of specialized schools, and specialized schools may prioritize access to a narrow profile of students (e.g., only students with dyslexia) and limit access to students with other disabilities who may be interested in the school. It is not hard to see how an apparently good idea evolves over time to become a system that locks students into relatively rigid tracks based on their disability rather than their ability. History has taught us this lesson.

Restrictiveness

A key element of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is that students with disabilities must be educated together with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate for their needs. This requirement is based on established civil rights tenets related to separate being inherently unequal and supported by research related to student outcomes. Identifying and providing the least restrictive environment, which may be a specialized school for some students, is not optional. While specialized schools can provide rich learning opportunities, we need to ensure that parents and students are not required to choose unnecessarily restrictive settings in order to access quality learning opportunities. I am uneasy about this outcome not because of an abstract legalistic paranoia, but because these practices led to the creation of IDEA in the first place.

Accountability and expectations

Finally, there is also a danger that specialized schools may not actually be good at serving the students they are designed to educate and a student’s status as having a disability may become a justification for low expectations. This makes it crucial to understand how good a specialized school is at its chosen mission. When confronted with unacceptable results, specialized schools—like almost all charter schools with high concentrations of “hard-to-teach” kids—may argue their impact is impossible to measure and that their kids are more challenging to educate than can be observed. These arguments will be used to not only keep bad schools open, but to justify lowering expectations for similar students everywhere.

Examples of good ideas gone wrong

Examples from a network of traditional public schools in Georgia and a charter school in New York provide insight into my position regarding the growth of specialized charter schools. While the opportunity to create attractive options for student with disabilities is tangible, caution is justified.

The state of Georgia is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the Office for Civil Rights based on allegations that the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports (G-NETS), a network of twenty-four specialized public schools, represents a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act due to its segregation of students. Notably, when the first G-NETS school opened in 1970, it was characterized as “visionary” because students would be able to attend schools that employed a rich mosaic of experts who would be able to help students with a variety of disabilities reach their potential. Over time, G-NETS schools degenerated to educational deserts lacking a clear curriculum, qualified teachers much less specialists, or a path for students to return to general education settings. While an extreme example, the charter sector would be wise to learn from the mistakes we have made historically in traditional public schools.

In the charter space, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) has been wrestling with how to hold Opportunity Charter School, a school for students with learning disabilities and cognitive delays, accountable for nearly fifteen years. NYCDOE recently rejected requests to expand the school and moved to close its middle school due to low performance; only 9 percent of its students demonstrated reading proficiency compared to 13 percent of a similar subset of students with disabilities in other schools. Citing the target population, the school has been able to remain open. If a school is going to advertise that it has unique expertise to serve students with disabilities, authorizers must be prepared to hold the school accountable for educating its students at least as well as more inclusive schools.

Balancing opportunities with concerns

All public schools are legally obligated (and should be able) to appropriately serve the vast majority of students with disabilities in inclusive settings. Unfortunately, too many public schools—charter and traditional alike—struggle to meet these obligations. And their parents, like all parents of students who are not being well served, are right to insist their children get what they need, as well as to look for better options. Astute authorizers can safeguard against the challenges observed in Georgia and New York but it is an explicit responsibility which needs to be embraced by the authorizer. In many instances, such as when charter schools operate as part of a larger traditional district, this will require close collaboration with local district personnel who play a role in enrollment and allocating resources.

The strong legal and programmatic preference for inclusive settings arose from decades of discrimination against students with disabilities, who were given no option but to be placed in restrictive settings. The challenge before us is to ensure the programmatic innovation and excellence that the best specialized schools provide—in both sectors—exists without having specialized schools become the default or only option for students with disabilities.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Lauren Morando Rhim