Charter Schools Have a Great Opportunity to Serve Sped Students Well

As many of you may have heard, last spring 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

3 Replies to “Charter Schools Have a Great Opportunity to Serve Sped Students Well”

  1. AshleyHope

    My girls go to a charter school. Both of them have problems in school. My youngest is ADD and dyslexic . She has been held back twice and in charters since her second year of kindergarten. ( we will get back to this ) My oldest daughter has an iq of 158, is bi-polar, has Aspergers, anxiety , ADD, and a from of ataxia. She is more than bright enough for regular classes, however she writes at a preschoolers pace.
    I have said that to say this, my girls are on their third charter school and this one by far tries to accommodate my children’s needs. They are not equipped to handle any of the issues sed kids face, however. There are no special classes. No special training. I went outside the school system to have my youngest tested for reading disorders because the schools refused to test her. Now she is 11 1/2 in fourth grade. ( the fcat had something to do with that ). My oldest is failing for 2 reasons, she can’t keep up and the teachers don’t have time to help, and she has quit trying.
    This is due to many factors but number one for both my kids failing is because school is awful for them. They are picked on ( my A because of her age and size and Z because while she looks like a 14/15 year old, she acts more like a 6 or 8 year old. He social skills are atrocious . )
    I put them in charters so I could have more control over their settings but it seems the teachers are just as tired and over worked. The bullying is crazy and the teachers overlook it until my child fights back. They punish both parties instead of the instigator. They don’t really even hear the child talking to them. There cameras but they make no difference.
    The sad truth is that a charter school does not have to abide by the same staffing laws public schools do and for special needs kids that is dangerous. I am enrolling my kids in schools pacifically designed for their needs.

    • AllisonHertogAllisonHertog Post author

      Dear Ashley Hope:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to tell me your experiences in charter schools. I’m sorry it has not been positive. It sounds like your oldest daughter in particular has some very complex needs which may be better served in a traditional public school (or a specialized private school if you can afford one or if your state has a special needs voucher program). Charter schools have fewer resources than traditional public schools. While that can and should be improved, in my opinion very few charter schools today have the expertise and the resources to serve disabled children with complex needs. As for your younger daughter, I believe the right charter school could accommodate her issues – particularly if her ADHD does not cause significant behavior problems.

      Where are you located? You may want to hire an advocate or attorney to help your daughters get what they’re entitled to in public school. If you are not in South Florida where I’m located, you can find one on the website and search for an advocate or attorney in your state.

      Thanks again and feel free to comment anytime. Your experiences can help others.

      Best Regards,

      Allison Hertog

  2. AshleyHope

    Thanks for the response. I am currently in negotiations with specialized charter schools to de with my children in their problems. The biggest factor that I have come across in the reason that we have had the dealings we have with a charter schools is because up until a certain age it’s hard to find 1 that can accommodate children of certain needs. For instance, you may find 1 that can cater to certain until fourth grade or 1 that does not start until 6th. As for public school, I did try that route but met up with horrible results. I did and still do prefer a charter school to a public school for my child education for many reasons. The smaller class sizes. The more focused education. The willingness to choreograph curriculum to fit your child’s needs . the more lenient rules to certain behaviors and how behaviors are handled. There are many benefits to a charter school, but there are also many drawbacks. my children have been in 6 school and 7 years with them staying in this last school for 3 years. I will not stop until I find the school that can handle my children and their to better service for education. I live in Gainesville and if the 2 schools that I’m going to send them to next year do not work out for whatever reason I will be moving to a district that can be better to facilitate my children’s needs


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