In the spring of 2012 the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a study concluding that charter schools enroll a lower percentage of special education students than traditional public schools.  The latest is that the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has deployed “several broad compliance reviews” to address enrollment as well as legal compliance in charter schools, and that some state legislatures have placed enrollment “targets” resembling quotas in charter schools to “fix” the enrollment problem.

This GAO report has gotten a tremendous amount of attention over the last several months.  Some of that attention no doubt is politically motivated to damage the charter school movement, but as a fierce school choice supporter and an attorney for parents of special needs children, I can say that the GAO report reflects a truth. For a variety of reasons which are detailed in the GAO report – not the least of which is the lack of funding parity in charter schools – charters are, in fact, serving a lower percentage of disabled kids than traditional public schools.

I won’t use this forum to debate whether or not within those financial confines charter schools are doing everything they can and should to enroll and retain special ed kids, or to describe various ways to mandate compliance with federal disability laws as special education attorneys are want to do.  Instead, I’m proposing a bottom-up model using Response to Intervention and the Common Core standards to improve academic achievement for all struggling learners (including special ed and low-income students) and to ultimately increase special ed enrollment in charter schools.  By the way, this approach can be employed in any school – private, public, charter, maybe even virtual – but is particularly well-suited for implementation and success in charter schools because of their enhanced freedom to enact school-wide reforms than traditional public schools.

What is Response to Intervention (RTI)?  Well, it is a special education reform codified into the 2004 reauthorization of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and believe it or not, it’s designed to decrease the rolls of special education students.  Following a dramatic rise of the number of students identified as specific learning disabled (SLD) in the 1990s, researchers from the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation suggested in a landmark 2001 paper, Rethinking Learning Disabilities, that the SLD label was a “catch-all” for low-achieving students which serves as a “sociological sponge that attempts to wipe up general education’s spills and cleanse its ills.” A 2002 report from a Presidential commission on special education went as far to state that up to 40% of children identified for special education weren’t truly disabled but were simply not taught to read properly.

With RTI, schools use a data-driven system of high quality core and supplemental instruction to identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes, provide evidence-based interventions and adjust the intensity and nature of those interventions depending on individual student responsiveness.  The idea is that if the RTI data shows that a particular student fails to achieve to state standards even after participating in systematic high-quality interventions, then and only then are they referred to special education.   Of course, RTI is not appropriate for students with every type of disability.  For instance, you wouldn’t administer RTI to a blind or severely autistic child before providing them with special education, of course.  But, it can be very successful with children who have significant academic and behavioral deficits.

As difficult as RTI is to describe, you might imagine that it’s not a cinch to implement either.  Many states, including Florida, Connecticut and Colorado, mandate RTI to occur in every general ed classroom in every public school, yet I’m sure few of us are seeing it done systematically, let alone done successfully.  At least one group, the Hill for Literacy, has developed a cost-efficient and sustainable model to train teachers  to improve and even turnaround struggling schools using RTI and the Common Core.  If charter school management organizations began to employ RTI on a schoolwide basis, they would improve the quality of education for all struggling students – some of which are truly disabled and some of which are simply not learning as quickly as their peers for a variety of reasons, charters would attract, enroll and even retain those students in greater numbers.

A version of this article was published on 11/6/12 in the blog