The charter school movement has grown steadily over the past half-decade, with enrollment topping 3 million in 2016-2017. Forty-four states and D.C. have charter schools. In 2017-18, 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, had at least 100 charter schools, and 9 states had between 50 and 99 charter schools. In eight states, charter schools serve more than 10% of the total student population, and in 19 cities (e.g., New Orleans, Louisiana, Flint, Michigan, Washington, D.C. and Camden, New Jersey) charter schools serve more than 30% of the student population. (More data on charter growth and enrollment by state available here.)

Growth in Charter School Population

With growth has come concern and scrutiny regarding charter schools and students with disabilities. Fortunately, these concerns are being addressed through a variety of avenues. Considerable time, effort and funds are now being directed at the issues involving charter schools and students with disabilities.

Therefore, it’s now time for parents/families and advocates for students with disabilities to pay increased attention to charter schools. Here are seven reasons why:

1. The Charter School Program (CSP) at the U.S. Dept. of Education (USED) has received substantial funding increases in the last two fiscal years – the largest percentage increases of any program within USED. Funding in FY19  ($440 million) will be almost $100 million more than FY17  ($342 million). These increased funds will support a variety of grants programs. Disability advocates have worked to ensure these grant programs adequately consider and address the needs of students with disabilities.

2. The U.S. Dept. of Education has awarded $10 million to a new center on educational choice. The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH Center) will develop and carry out the next generation of research on how states and school districts may implement or revise their school choice programs and policies in ways that improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, including low-income, underrepresented minority, students with disabilities, and English Language Learner (ELL) students.

3. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recently announced grants focused on helping charter schools better serve students with disabilities. Among the grantees is the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools  which will receive $1.2 million to elevate policy-advocacy for students with disabilities in charter schools. This funding will allow the Center to add a Senior Director of Policy, a Policy Specialist and a Communications Director to its already rapidly growing organization.

4. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools will increase the level of attention paid to issues regarding students with disabilities in its next annual rankings of state charter laws. The rankings are based on how well states’ charter school laws align to the National Alliance model state law. The model state law – updated in October 2016 – added increased focus on serving students with disabilities. Now, the National Alliance will incorporate this focus into the state rankings, which will continue to heighten the attention that state charter laws pay to students with disabilities. Paul O’Neill, co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, is leading this work.

5. The National Council on Disability (NCD) – the federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities – will release a comprehensive report on charter schools and students with disabilities in Fall 2018. The report will include extensive analyses of how the charter sector is serving students with disabilities and will include several policy recommendations.

6. The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) conducted a survey of parents in “high-choice” districts and based on that research, we know that while parents are taking advantage of choice, they would like more choices. However, parents of students with disabilities, parents with less education and minority parents report that they experience difficulties when attempting to navigate school choice options. In July 2018 CRPE received a $1.2 million grant from Gates to identify the instructional, curricular, organizational, cultural, and policy conditions associated with effective delivery of special education in charter schools.

7. The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) just marked its 5th year of operation. During its very productive first five years, the Center has developed relationships with states agencies, charter authorizers, charter support organizations, charter management organizations and individual charter schools, released two comprehensive analyses of the Civil Rights Data Collection, and released a toolkit on building charter school authorizers’ capacity to ensure schools are prepared to provide quality special education services and supports. Early on NCSECS formed the Equity Coalition, which includes representatives from a diverse range of organizations with an interest in students with diverse learning needs, special education programs, charter schools and education reform. In September 2018, the Equity Coalition released “Principles of Equitable Schools” which lays out core principles that should be upheld by any school enrolling students using public dollars.

According to Executive Director Lauren Morando Rhim “NCSECS is anxious to amplify the important role that parents play in ensuring equity for students with disabilities in the charter sector.”