Justin Talks to Robin About Messy Stuff: Part 2

Robin Lake runs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Lake’s research focuses on special education, charter schools, innovation, and a host of other issues. Today on the blog, I talk to Lake about how charter schools interface with special education issues. This is the second interview in an ongoing series of conversations with Lake about some of the most complex, messy issues in education today. Our earlier conversation about charter backfill policies appeared on the blog in June.

Me: Why do you think folks are paying more attention to special education in charters all of a sudden?

Lake: I think it’s unavoidable now. In places where the market share of charters has grown, and charters are more of a norm than the exception, the special education issues are coming to the fore. First, opponents of charters are finding bad stuff and filing complaints. Frankly, even more likely, a parent will have an issue that they want to take to the courts. And I think a lot of charter schools are wrestling with how to meet all kids’ needs in a way that they can manage financially and do right by kids. It’s just becoming more of a system question.

Me: Is this of a piece with the backfill issue, wherein market share and sheer number of charters causes questions to come up?

Lake: I guess it does. Special education was bound to become an issue at some point. Charters were made to be about outcomes and not process. Special education is all about process. We started working on special education years ago because we saw the problem coming. We also saw it as an opportunity. Charters have the opportunity to innovate, and if they can figure this out it’s a great chance to do special education differently. So we knew it was coming, but it’s unavoidable because of the market share questions. In a place like New Orleans, it’s right in the forefront. Because charter schools are the system.

Me: What do you mean when you say special education is all about process?

Lake: The way that kids are assured of a good special education process is through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). That plan is all about service hours, provision of services, types of access to different services. It has only a slight nod to actual outcomes, partly because it’s so challenging to measure special education outcomes. It’s all about the process and the legal response once the process has run afoul. That’s about following rules mostly, like, “Are the service hours being delivered?”

Me: Is there a broader conversation beyond charter schools about whether there’s too much process focus on sped?

Lake: Special education advocacy groups have fought for many decades to get the legal protections available for kids with special needs. There’s no interest in doing away with those legal protections. As a result, process and access requirements are part of the deal, but there’s definitely much more interest now in shifting to include outcomes in the conversation. The US Department of Education has been pushing that messaging out, but nobody really knows what that means. There is a particularly awesome opportunity for charter schools to lead. How do real performance and metrics help us to say, “Yes, we’re meeting the legal requirements. In addition, we’re serving the kids really well.” That’s a place where charters and districts will have to figure this out together.

Me: One of the biggest criticisms of charters is the assumption that they serve fewer kids with special needs. Is this true? If so, why?

Lake; That’s a tough question. A GAO report from a few years ago provided numbers in different states. In some states charters served fewer kids with special needs, while in other states there were more. In general, it’s a few percentage points lower in charters. We think that that’s sort of a meaningless number. It’s great if the numbers match up. But when you look a little closer at how kids with special needs are distributed in any given city, whether in districts or charters, you quickly see that the numbers are not evenly distributed in any sector. You’ll often get high concentrations of special needs in some schools and low concentrations in others. In Seattle we have specialty schools where kids with low incidence special needs go. Is it right to compare charters to an average district number? It’s really not the right question. Are kids with special education needs welcome in charter school and served well, and do they have a good range of options? That’s a good question. Also, to the degree that charters are less likely to identity kids, and rather address their learning needs, that can actually keep lower the number of children in special education.

A trend that we do tend to see in most cities and states, though, is that while charters schools can look similar in their overall special education numbers, there are lower numbers of kids with real high needs disabilities, or what the special education community would call “low incidence disabilities.” That includes fragile children and children with severe behavioral challenges. It might be that families aren’t choosing charters because the district schools have special programs to meet those needs. It could be that they’re being excluded.

Me: It really is a specialty to serve kids with low incidence disabilities.

Lake: It’s a specialty, and one that almost nobody has figured out how to do well. Districts will say they have programs for those kids, but nobody is completely happy with them, especially the districts. Too often those programs are segregated from the general education students. What’s happened in Denver is very interesting. Denver Public Schools has partnered with STRIVE Prep and Denver School of Science and Technology to create special education programs for kids with low incidence disabilities in the charter schools. Chris Gibbons from STRIVE Prep has been a real leader on this. He has agreed to work with Denver, but the schools need the resources to make it work. The folks from Denver Public Schools have been going around the country with charter leaders to help figure out what can really work.

Me: Who else is dealing with this in a careful and innovative ways?

Lake: New Orleans is getting there. In some ways they’re being forced into it. The Southern Poverty Law Center supported a parent’s case against a charter school. The city figured out that it needed a systemic solution. They started by getting the funding right, which is essential. That says to charter schools, “Don’t complain that you don’t have the resources. You can create emergency risk pools. The money follows the kid.” They got the funding argument off the table. Then they created grant programs that allowed schools to create specialized and integrated classrooms for special education. They’ve been pretty thoughtful. You have to take an "research and development" approach to this question. There’s a lot of learning that has to go on. You can give funds to schools that really have the capacity to try new things

There are many schools around the country doing really interesting things. Chime Institute is a school in California that grew out of a university lab program. They had a lot of expertise on special education. It’s a fully integrated program. It’s really thoughtful, really great work.

Me: If you could require one thing of either all charter schools or all charter authorizers, what would it be? Or if you had a magic wand, what would you do?

Lake: I would make sure that every charter school is its own Local Education Agency (LEA) for the purpose of special education. A lot of folks won’t agree with that, but that clarifies responsibilities immediately. You own the responsibility for special education services for this child. And outcomes. It’s up to you. If that means creating cooperatives to create shared services or contracting with another school so that the kid receives services somewhere else, great. But the school owns the responsibility. From a policy perspective, I think responsibility is something that needs to be clearer. I hear charters say that they can’t get outcomes because the district is sending them weak teachers, or this excuse, or another excuse, and I think it’s time to be done with all of that.

Me: Is there anything I didn’t ask but should have?

Lake: I get a lot of questions from folks who are concerned that parents are worse off when charters are around, from a special education perspective. That confounds me, because we’ve done focus groups with parents over the years showing the opposite. We ask whether charters make life difficult for them. Sure, they still have to advocate, and like with districts schools, sometimes they have to bully their way in, advocate for their kids rights, and be a smart advocate and consumer. But they’re going to be doing that anyway, and the fact that they have more options distinct from what the district would provide them is just a huge relief to most parents. They don’t care what the school is called. The label really isn’t important to them. They just want a good fit for their kids. In spite of my critique that charters need to do much more for kids with special needs, on both access and innovation, it’s important to remember that more choices are almost always better when it comes to a kid with special needs, because it’s so hard to find a good fit anywhere.