Everyone benefits when charter schools and districts partner on special education

Gina Plate / commentaryNovember 17, 2013Gina PlateThe charter school movement began as a way to create a new kind of public school – one with more flexibility and autonomy over instruction and operations in exchange for higher levels of accountability.
However, as the movement evolved, flexibility and autonomy did not follow in the area of special education. Instead, charter schools’ special education services have, in many cases, mirrored the services provided by the charter school’s authorizer (usually the local school district). Take the example of a student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) enrolling at a charter school; since the IEP indicates a need for a specialized placement, the student/family would likely be offered space in a program back at a traditional district campus instead of at the charter school.
In January 2011, the Los Angeles Unified School District made a bold move to try a new approach, which was unanimously approved by the LAUSD School Board.
In California, services for students with disabilities are administered through regional district collaboratives, called Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs. In this case, the SELPA for Los Angeles Unified organized a new option for charter schools to provide special education services with full responsibility, flexibility and autonomy for serving all students with disabilities enrolled in the school. The Charter Operated Program (COP) became operational on July 1, 2011 with 47 participating schools, serving nearly 27,000 students. Its mission is to create a community of charter schools working together to provide innovative, high-quality educational options for students with unique needs. This network will serve as a model for excellence and directly address the concern that historically there have been lower percentages of students with special needs in charter schools compared to the district average.
Charter schools are committed to serving every child who walks through their doors. Unfortunately, prior to this option, charter schools in LAUSD had limited ability to serve students with moderate to severe disabilities. It’s not that the charters didn’t want to provide programs; it’s that they have lacked the funding and flexibility to develop those programs. This reorganization removed barriers and gave charter schools the ability to serve all students.
A primary goal of the LAUSD board was to increase the number of students with special needs enrolled in charter schools, as well as the range of disabilities of the students served. That is exactly what we have seen in a report released this fall by the California Charter Schools Association. The results of the first two years of the COP program have exceeded all original expectations:
The percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in COP schools increased from 8.09 percent to 9.01 percent after the first year, which was greater than a similar increase across all charter schools in the district. (Based on data from California Basic Educational Data System and Welligent.)
The percentage of students with moderate to severe disabilities at the COP schools grew by 21.9 percent, which is greater than the overall student enrollment growth of 11.2 percent.
COP member schools added more than 100 new students with moderate to severe disabilities after their first year in the program.
A new report from the Office of the Independent Monitor, the oversight agency of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s special education program, shows this trend of increasing enrollment of students with special needs continued in the third year of the program as well.
Charter schools are diverse – in their missions, size and length of operation. The LAUSD reorganization recognizes this and actually gives charter schools a continuum of three different options that reflect the varying levels of support they might want from a district. These range from an option that fully links a charter to district services, all the way to an option that offers independence from the district.
The reorganization gives charter schools, regardless of their size, the ability to serve students across a wide spectrum of disabilities. Schools in the new and more flexible option can spend special education funds in a way that better aligns with the unique mission and vision of their programs, ultimately benefiting students.
There is a significant shift happening in the field of special education. It used to be that when a student was identified as having special needs, the question was: Where should we send this student? “Special education” became a place: It was a special day class. It was a special education center. It was a private placement.
With this new option, all stakeholders are moving toward a different question that focuses on how a student will be served, not where. Charter schools are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The continuum of options that LAUSD now offers to charter schools is an innovative partnership that leverages the unique flexibility inherent in this movement, and ensures true choice for every family.
While there are many facets to this new model, the underlying premise is simple: Give schools a continuum of options that allows for increasing flexibility and autonomy in funding and service delivery and let them, in partnership with their authorizer, determine the best match for the students in their programs. While the LAUSD program is the first of its kind, it could be implemented elsewhere because it contains arrangements that already exist in other areas of California and the nation. The model intertwines the best that the district has to offer and the best that the charter schools have to offer, under an umbrella of partnership and trust. We hope it will serve as an example of how traditional public schools and charter schools can share expertise, services, funding and a role in decision-making within a single SELPA.
Gina Plate is senior adviser for special education for the California Charter Schools Association.

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