The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Submit your question here or write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org. I just might tackle it in next week’s edition.

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In last week’s Learning Curve, I responded to a question from a reader who wanted to know why more isn’t done to hold charter schools accountable – to keep them from misspending taxpayer dollars, or pushing kids with special needs out of their schools, for example.

I decided to break the question into two parts. Last week, I looked at how charter school oversight works.

This week, I want to respond to another piece of that same original question: How do charter schools serve kids with special needs?

The common narrative goes like this: Charter schools simply don’t accept students with special needs during their admission process, or they push floundering kids out of school once they’re enrolled, a process often referred to as “counseling out.”

Taking a cynical view of charter schools, this makes sense. Because students with special needs are less likely to do well on standardized tests, keeping them out maintains high test scores averages, which in turn raises the school’s profile and attracts more parents.

If this is correct, charter schools get the cream of the crop, and students who remain in traditional schools are the harder-to-reach students whose parents aren’t involved or savvy enough to navigate the system and enroll their kids in top schools.

So if charter schools are finding any success, it’s because they’re capitalizing on a process that’s systemically flawed. But as with many assumptions, when we take a closer look, we see the story isn’t quite so convenient.

Over the years, allegations and lawsuits have cropped up in places like Florida and New Orleans, where parents have accused charter schools of failing to provide special education services, or systematically barring kids from school.

Then, in 2012, the Government Accountability Office released a report that said charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with special needs than traditional public schools.

The report couldn’t identify which factors contributed to the gap, but suggested it could be related to soft discrimination in charter school admission policies, or parental choice.

First, it’s important to remember that charter schools are not a monolith. Shady things go on at some; others are pretty great. Generalizing all charters as scandalous because of something that happened in Florida is as unfair as categorizing all traditional district schools as cheaters simply because educators in Atlanta got busted changing student test scores.In San Diego, disadvantaged students are actually doing quite well in charter schools. And if evidence suggests charter schools are discriminating against students with special needs – something that’s prohibited by federal law – it’s  the overseer’s job to look into in. (As I wrote last week, in California this task most often falls on school districts).

In California, there are in fact fewer students with special needs in charter schools than there are in traditional district schools. But the difference is slight – 1.5 percent, according to a new report by the California Charter Schools Association. And the gap is closing.

There are a couple important pieces to understand. Charter schools in California have two options for how they provide special education services.

First, charters can choose to be part of a larger entity, known as a Local Education Agency, which they rely on for services and funding. LEAs can be a single large school district, or contain various smaller districts.

So, for example, a charter school in San Diego Unified could otherwise operate autonomously, but call on district staff to provide special education services. Charter schools would also pay the district for this arrangement – up to $1,500 per student, regardless of the severity of a student’s learning disability. And that adds up.

Until a few years ago, this was the default system across the state. But it became a sort of chicken-and-egg problem for charter schools: School districts (or LEAs) held onto special education funds, which prevented charter schools from hiring their own special education staff, or investing in those services.

Without appropriate services, kids with special needs were more likely to be referred to district schools that had infrastructure to support them. So it would make sense that charters had fewer kids with special needs.

The system posed other problems, too. The district’s special education staff might be at odds with the ways in which charters educate, or they might be asked to work hours that don’t jibe with their contracts.

In 2010, the State Board of Education offered charter schools greater autonomy for special education purposes. They could be responsible for operating their own special education programs, and more state and federal dollars flowed directly to them.

When charters in San Diego were first switching over to the new system, parents and district staff members worried that charters would simply pocket the money and skimp on the special education services.

But since they were allowed the additional freedom, this system has become the local norm. Out of 49 charter schools in San Diego Unified, 44 operate autonomously for the purposes of special education. The school district still has some oversight responsibility, and makes sure charters are compliant with federal law, but most charters no longer rely on the district for support and funding. And if the overseer finds student needs aren’t being met, the school is held responsible.

Statewide, charter schools have increased their special education populations since 2010. CCSA data show that the longer a charter school operates, and has time to build its special education support structure, its percentage of students with special needs increases.

For Gina Plate, CCSA’s special education adviser, recent numbers prove that when charter schools are given more authority and access to funding, their special education populations go up and services are provided in innovative ways. (For example, a charter school might be better equipped than a traditional public school to tailor instruction for students with specialized needs.)

“We have to understand that if we want to hold charter schools responsible for serving everybody, we have to give them the money and ability to it,” Plate said.

None of this is to say that problems are nonexistent. As a former special education teacher (in a charter school, no less), I can say that providing the best supports for students with special needs can feel like trial-and-error – at times uncomfortably close to guesswork.

But it’s important to separate the inherent challenges of teaching a vulnerable population from the larger system.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Activists look to courts to weaken grip of California teachers union (Sacramento Bee)

Despite millions in campaign donations and massive public relations campaigns, advocates hoping to reform California’s education landscape are coming up short in Sacramento, where policy meets political muscle. But that’s not stopping them.

“Thwarted at the Capitol – and on the ballot – a coalition of advocates working to overhaul the state’s low-ranking public schools increasingly have turned to the courts in search of more favorable outcomes,” writes SacBee reporter Christopher Cadelago.

Even California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel had to give reformers credit for stepping up their game: “If I was them, and if I was trying to neutralize the unions, and I was having difficulty getting the right candidates elected or getting the right initiatives passed, I would certainly be looking at the courts,” he said.

• L.A. School Board Seat Is a Pivotal Win for Charter School Movement (L.A. Times)

Those hoping to change the system might be struggling to find traction in Sacramento, but Los Angeles is welcoming a new era.

Ref Rodriguez, a leader in L.A.’s charter school community, this week defeated union-backed incumbent Bennett Kayser. Charter school supporters look forward to having a strong voice on the seven-person LA Unified school board.

“The Kayser/Rodriguez contest became a high-cost, bitter proxy campaign between charter advocates and the teachers union, a face-off with implications well beyond Los Angeles,” writes Howard Blume.

For a school board race, it was a spendy contest: Charter school advocates spent more than $2 million to elect Rodriguez; the union put $1 million behind Kayser.

Rodriguez was decidedly diplomatic in his remarks after the victory, telling his supporters, “We need our schools to fit our young people, not the other way around.”

But the quote of the story comes from a 65-year-old grandmother who in the ‘90s built community support for a downtown high school to relieve overcrowding.

“I heard a lot of negative and positive about the charters and I believe the best thing is to give it a try and not just go by hearsay,” she said.

• School-to-Prison Pipeline Explainer (The Marshall Project)

You’ve probably heard this term kicked around in discussions about school discipline policies, but maybe you haven’t been quite sure what it meant. This quick video ‘splainer should help.

Basically, harsh zero-tolerance policies schools put in place about 20 years ago have had a profound impact, especially on students of color and those with disabilities. Behavior that used to send kids to the principal’s office can now land them in the juvenile (or adult) correctional systems. But seriously, just watch the video.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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