fuel for debate

Report: District-charter special ed gap not from "counseling out"

photoStories of charter school officials telling — or hinting to — high-needs students that they should look elsewhere for their educational needs have long fueled criticism of the charter sector. But a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education argues that “counseling out” is not the cause of the special education gap between the city’s district and charter elementary schools.

In New York City, 13.1 percent of charter school students receive special education services, compared to 16.5 percent of district school students. Using lottery data from 25 charter elementary schools and information from the city, researcher Marcus Winters found two main reasons for the gap: that fewer students with disabilities apply for kindergarten spots at charter schools, and charters classify fewer students as needing special education services once they start school.

The report was not mean to “fully explain away what is a well-documented disparity,” New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said at a discussion at the center on Monday.

“What it does do, importantly, is demonstrate conclusively that a significant number of charter schools in New York City are having success in keeping children from inappropriately being classified in the first place as needing special education services and at the same time, hopefully giving them a far better chance at success in their school careers,” Merriman said.

The report will be a boon for charter school advocates, many of whom attended the discussion. It also reaffirms positions that Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute, has taken before about how students with disabilities are not denied access to charter schools.

The data have some significant limitations. Only 25 charter elementary schools provided their lottery and retention information, and most are a part of charter networks, including Achievement First, Explore, Girls Prep, Success Academy, Icahn, KIPP, and Uncommon Schools. That means the report does little to illustrate what’s happening at the city’s many independent charter schools, and since schools had to volunteer their data, any schools actively counseling students out would presumably have declined to participate.

And not everyone is convinced that counseling out is an insignificant factor in the special education gap. Paulina Davis of the Charter Schools Initiative at Advocates for Children of New York said she regularly helps families who call the organization’s helpline looking for information about their children’s rights.

“My work has been busy here,” she said. “While some charter schools do make an effort to work with parents of students with disabilities, we do still get a number of calls from parents who will say, a charter school said we don’t think we’re a good fit for your child.”

In 2010, state legislators tried to address the enrollment disparities by requiring charter schools to register high-needs students at a rate “comparable” to that of their local school district. But when the state proposed a methodology to calculate those enrollment targets, some charter leaders objected, saying that it would remove incentives for schools to help students enough so that they no longer require special education services.

Those sentiments were echoed in Winters’ report, which shows that charter schools declassify special education students at higher rates than district schools — leading to unfair comparisons, charter leaders said. Winters’ report also unpacks the diversity of the special needs classification, showing that for the most severe categories of special needs, the district-charter gap doesn’t grow much from kindergarten to fifth grade. That gap is composed almost solely of students with the least severe category of specific learning disabilities, who Winters said were “heavily over-identified” in district schools.

Also at play in creating the gap are charter schools’ enrollment policies. Special education students in all kinds of schools are statistically more likely than other students to leave the school they’re at, regardless of type, which Winters called “natural mobility.” But students who leave a charter school are much more likely to end up in a district school, since few charter schools take students mid-year or take many students in the older elementary grades.

Some elementary schools, such as DREAM Charter School in Harlem, are enrolling high proportions of special education students. At the discussion, DREAM’s director of special education, Jacqueline Frey, said her school has 24 percent special education students thanks to a range of programs that attract families of students with special needs.

That effort is what Davis says is still missing in some parts of the charter sector. “I too agree that we don’t know what parents are being told,” she said. “We do know that there hasn’t been much growth in as diverse array of services offered at charter schools for students with disabilities.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.