Innovation with Accountability

Sobson, Lorraine - Off the Shelf
If you’ve had your eye on education news over the past few months, you’ve probably noticed a surge in stories about school “choice” for parents and students. While much of this discussion pertains to school vouchers, I thought it presented a good opportunity to talk about charter schools, which also fall under the umbrella of “choice.”

The charter school movement initially alarmed public school advocates because they worried charters would lack accountability. I think one reason for this is there’s also a tendency to confuse the rise of charter schools with the push to increase the use of school vouchers—but these options represent two very different systems for educating students. Vouchers allow families to divert U.S. tax dollars away from public schools and send those dollars to private schools which may not be subject to special education law. Charter schools, on the other hand, are part of a local education agency (or are themselves an LEA) and are part of the public education system. As such, they’re bound by the same laws and regulations that govern public schools.

So, the question surrounding charters isn’t whether the system makes them accountable―rather, it’s whether charters meet the requirements of the system. Not all agree that they do.

Let me just add that there are exciting things about charter schools. In particular, they offer more flexibility in academic programming, which allows educators to try new things and be innovators. We’re always looking for new and better ways to do things in special education, so I love the idea of this. It’s important, however, for educators and families to remember that flexibility and innovation do not eschew accountability to the law.

Unfortunately, it has become apparent over time that, despite the law, a large number of charters have not met their responsibilities to students with disabilities. As this recent article demonstrates, debate continues to roil about how well students with disabilities are served in these schools.

Whether you think charters are a horrible mistake or an exciting opportunity for change and innovation, one thing is clear: charter schools aren’t going away any time soon. Recognizing this fact, CEC wanted to develop something to help charter school administrators and educators provide the supports and services required to serve all students, especially those with disabilities.

That’s why we worked with members of the Equity Coalition—which brings charter school leaders together with special education leaders—to develop the book “Charting the Course: Special Education in Charter Schools.” This book provides essential information for charter management organizations and authorizers, administrators, teachers, and parents of charter school students.

Charting the Course” distills the special education laws and regulations that guarantee a student’s right to a free and appropriate public education into manageable language. In this context, the book identifies the procedures involved in setting up, running, and closing down a school in a way that follows the law and treats kids well.

As we all know, it’s one thing to know how to do something and another to have the means to do it, and this book does not shy away from addressing the problem of resources. Many charter schools have come under fire for excluding students with disabilities for fear the cost of educating them will tap valuable school resources. It’s true that individual schools don’t always have the capability to respond to a student’s needs; this happens in public schools as well. But just as in public schools, charters can’t exclude students or ignore their needs for lack of resources. Neither public nor charter schools can say, “We don’t have the money.”

When an unusual situation comes up, schools must seek outside help. As one solution, the book discusses ways to build a community around common needs with other schools. Such partnerships can broaden access to outside resources such as professional specialists who may not be required onsite full time. Through these kinds of arrangements, schools can increase service provision while keeping expenses under control.

The book also addresses identifying and implementing evidence-based practices, instructional programming, and effective IEPs. After all, using structures and methods that are proven to work will save charters time and money that shouldn’t be wasted reinventing the wheel!

Every child needs to have access to a quality education, and all schools need to be accountable to providing that access. With “Charting the Course,” we’ve created a resource to help charters meet student needs in affordable ways that comply with the law while also respecting the commitment to innovation and change charters are known to celebrate.

Lorraine Sobson
Editor and Manager, CEC Professional Publications

You can read CEC’s Policy on Children with Exceptionalities in Charter Schools here.

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