Time for Charters to Lead on Special Education

Robin Lake, via a kind Deb Britt email:

Last week I jumped all over Andy Smarick on Twitter for suggesting that practices like the DC Public Charter School Board’s Secret Shopper program (where staff pretend to be parents searching for a school for a child with a disability) and requiring charter schools to take students mid-year place the needs of a small number of students over the good of the whole. Citing a long list of philosophers, Andy argued that in dogged pursuit of equity we risk undercutting successful efforts to help students.

Legal issues aside,* Andy raises a commonly held argument from charter advocates and a compelling theoretical perspective: “We can’t save some kids if you expect every school to be everything to everybody.” The famous Lifeboat Dilemma comes to mind: there is a point at which pulling one more person into a lifeboat compromises everyone’s future. I get it.

*Of course, any charter school that is its own Local Education Agency cannot legally exclude or “counsel out” students with special needs unless the state law makes some special provision. Parents have the right to decide, with their IEP team, which school offers the best and Least Restrictive Environment for their child. What Andy is suggesting, I guess, is that authorizers should not too strenuously enforce the law.

But here’s the problem. Charter supporters invoke this dilemma all too easily and abstractly. While it’s obvious that the weight of one more person can swamp a boat, the analogy is misleading when it comes to schools. The lifeboat analogy allows a school to define its own risk to avoid admitting a student. It lets a school unilaterally decide not to serve someone.