As the charter movement grew, so did concern that charter schools would become boutique schools for affluent families. By 2010, that concern had been dispelled—half of the 1.8 million students in charter schools came from low-income families. But it was increasingly clear that many charter schools were exclusive in another way: they were not enrolling as many special education students as the district-run schools nearby.
Sometimes, this gap happens because charter schools find other, effective ways to serve students who might have been assigned to special education in their traditional schools. But in other cases it’s a genuine disparity of service. That’s especially concerning in the several states where charter schools hold the status of an independent district (called “LEA status”) and are thus legally obligated to serve all students regardless of their learning needs.
It’s not just a matter of numbers but of purpose. As I’ve learned in helping my family find good educational and life opportunities for my severely disabled aunt, the best environments for people with special needs are often small, flexible, and dedicated to a specialized mission—characteristics that charter schools tend to share.
In 2010, Robin Lake edited Unique Schools Serving Unique Students: Charter Schools and Children with Special Needs, a much-needed book that turned attention to special education in charter schools. Unlike much of the coverage of the issue, Unique Schools wasn’t dedicated to calling out where charters fell short. Rather, the book stands out because the contributors showed where real solutions existed for families, and how those opportunities could be leveraged even more widely.