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SWD increase in charters

“[E]nrollment of [students with disabilities] attending independent charters continues to show an upward trend for the third consecutive year. Since the 2011-2012 school year, the overall population of students attending charter schools increased 6.9% (n=5,725), with SWD accounting for approximately 20% (n=1,101) of these new students. Overall, the percentage of SWD attending charters is 9.3% compared to 12.3% attending District-operated schools.” -Office of Independent Monitor of the LAUSD Modified Consent Decree

Ensuring students with disabilities (SWD) enjoy equal access to charter schools and are well served in them is tricky, but that doesn’t mean we should not try some easy fixes along the way.  Recent activity in Los Angeles illustrates both tricky and easy initiatives – and the promises of both.  The district has a long-standing difference in special education enrollments between the charters and the traditional public schools.  The district’s schools enroll about 12 percent SWD.  Two years ago the charters enrolled slightly more than 8 percent SWD. Since then, LA has had dramatic growth in charter enrollment and in the proportion of special education students in charter schools.

The California Charter School Association (CCSA) helped.  Working closely with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), as part of a much more complex initiative, the CCSA encouraged a relatively simple fix that I believe is worth considering in other contexts. Applications for admissions to LAUSD charter schools no longer ask if a child is in special education.

This is the “simple part” of LA’s story. I never suggest this is a silver bullet; rather; I think of it as low-hanging fruit. Two years ago, 88 schools (or 48 percent of the charters in the district) had application forms that asked parents if their kids had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  The next year, only five schools asked this question. Presumably it will be zero next year.  The first year after changing the application forms, 5,725 new kids enrolled in the district’s charters.  1,100 of those kids had IEPs, which is about 20 percent of all new enrollees.  That influx boosted the over-all proportion of SWD in LA charters from 8.21 percent in 2010, to 9.30 percent in 2012.

We don’t really know which of the different initiatives produced the SWD enrollment increase.  It could be that the change in enrollment forms is small and the other simultaneous changes made all the difference. That is something worth studying in more detail.  But I do know that if nothing in LA had changed, and the 5,725 new enrollees in LA charter schools had the same special education enrollment rate as in previous years, we would have expected only 470 of them to have had IEPs.  If the enrollment rates of SWD in charters equaled traditional public schools, only 692 new kids with IEPs would have entered the charters.  That makes me pretty excited to see 1,100 newly-enrolled kids with IEPs.

There is still plenty of tricky work to do. The charters now enroll about 9.3 percent SWD, which compares to a traditional public school special education enrollment that has fluctuated between 12 and 12.3 percent during those years.

Now charters don’t use data on applications to pick and choose kids.  Over-subscribed schools use lotteries; and while some of LA’s charter schools may counsel parents of SWD to go elsewhere, it is likely that several mechanisms and various actors were involved in generating the historical enrollment rates. For example: parents of SWD may not apply because their kids are already in specialized programs starting in pre-school; they may be counseled to stay – before applying to a charter – by the IEP team in their current school; they may never contact the charter because they are discouraged by perceived obstacles in the enrollment process; and the district may recommend other schools for particular types of disabilities, based on their own district-run schools with unique missions and programs.  All these various mechanisms share a common characteristic – there is nothing a charter school can do about any of them.  That is one reason overcoming the trickier parts of this challenge requires deep partnerships with local school districts.

Based on LA’s recent enrollment increase, however, I am willing to suggest we change policies around admissions practices in more places.  Of course, we should also pursue the trickier work.  But as we study and pursue sophisticated initiatives, I suggest we pass a slew of state laws that simply say, “No charter shall ask for information regarding a student’s special education status prior to determining whether that child is admitted to the school.”  Heck, while we are at it, we should ban the practice for district-run, public choice programs as well.

For all those who want to quibble with this simple idea, as the guy in the big-bellied fig suit said in the dancing Fig Newton T.V. ads of my youth, “Here’s the tricky part.”

This change basically requires a two-step process. In the first step, everybody applies to schools with a system that is blind to their IEP status.  After being “admitted”, a second phase takes place that determines whether the admitting school is an appropriate placement for that child.  This decision will be handled through the tools available under federal and state special education law, rather than through charter admissions process.  In the majority of cases, the answer will be yes.  Charter schools can and should figure out how to address the needs of almost all children.  Once admitted, the child’s former school and district, as well as the receiving school and district or authorizer, need to quickly determine what services a child needs in the potential new placement. If not handled correctly, this two-phase process could just shift the point at which families of SWD are discouraged from enrolling to later in the year – no real improvement there.   But the special education laws contain due process guarantees for parents that make it harder, and riskier, for anyone to try to game the system.

In a few cases, the new school may not be an appropriate placement for a child. That determination will depend on that child’s specific needs, the school’s program, and the legal structure of charter schools in that state.  More tricky work involves defining what we mean by appropriate and deciding who is making the decision.  That all requires careful thinking.  When the child’s team, made up of the right people, make a wise decision about a child’s specific needs, and that decision indicates another placement, the child then needs admission to an appropriate placement and services where they end up. The timing and logistics of that can be hard.

And after students are admitted, making sure they actually get appropriate services wherever they end up is a whole new challenge. Part of the fix is to create systems that help all schools provide better services.  The special education administrative unit, or in California’s language, a SELPA, could be part of this. In some cases, like LAUSD for example, the California SELPAs provide support and infrastructure that enable charter schools to match what a large district can provide.  The CCSA has also strengthened relationships between charters and districts and supported the creation of a continuum of options for charter schools that have resulted in more SWD being served. Creating similar initiatives in other districts and states is part of the “tricky” solution.

It is worth noting that these challenges exist already, but everybody gets to avoid them when families “decide” not to apply or if districts discourage parents of SWD from exercising choice in other ways.  Encouraging more families to pursue whatever choices they really want for their kids is worth the extra work — especially if we can create a world in which all kids with IEPs enjoy the same rights as anyone else, including the right to apply to the school they want and where nothing in the admissions process pre-judges that child based on his or her unique needs.

Hopefully, once more kids apply to the charters they want, and are accepted, we will actually build increased urgency to overcome the rest of these challenges.  Addressing the tricky part may take a while, but we can get started with the “simple” stuff now.


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