Educating Students with Disabilities in Charter Schools

A report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS).

The challenge of serving students with disabilities is familiar to both practitioners and policymakers, especially when it comes to education reform. Charter schools are often viewed as institutions that fail to serve students with disabilities well, or in the same proportions as district-run schools. Sometimes this is true, but it oversimplifies reality. Some charter schools serve few students with disabilities, and others are systematically discouraged from doing so because of available resources and district partnerships. And there are charter schools that have deeply committed to serving these students well.

The grand promise of charter schools is that they will use their flexibility to provide every child with a great education that prepares them for college, career, and life. This echoes the dream of all parents when they send their children off to kindergarten. Clear-eyed research about the characteristics of these schools could help cut through much of the rhetoric that fills the vacuum of information.

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Explore the profiles of practice

Read about the schools we observed that exhibited a campus-wide commitment to serve every student’s unique needs, to build strong student and adult relationships, and to seamlessly integrate students with unique learning needs into the instructional and social fabric of the schools.

This report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) examines how some charter schools are improving outcomes for students with disabilities and what factors influence their ability to do so. It offers lessons for all schools working to improve how we educate students with disabilities.

We identified charter schools serving middle and high school grades and an average or higher proportion of students with disabilities. We also identified schools  with a successful record of educating students with disabilities based on standardized test outcomes, student course taking, or suspension and expulsion rates. To identify schools with both a strong record of performance and interesting approaches, we also asked leaders in the field to nominate schools for us to consider. We observed classrooms and conducted structured interviews with teachers, administrators, and parents in 30 charter schools across the country. 

We found that educating students with disabilities well in these charter schools is based on an integrated set of principles that are put into action, reinforced, and sustained by intentional systems and structures. Three principles appear to matter most:

1) Trusting relationships between schools and families built on caring and productive communication.

2) An orientation toward ongoing problem solving to meet individual needs.

3) Blurred lines between special and general education students’ instructional and social experiences.

Without schoolwide commitment to all three principles, individual teacher and classroom practices falter.

Schools reinforce and sustain these principles with four overlapping conditions

  • Assertive leadership that prioritizes special education.
  • Strong cultures of mutual respect and solution seeking. 
  • Robust data and technology that support flexible but intentional instructional approaches. 
  • Purposeful organizational structures, resource allocation, and tools that facilitate collaboration and information sharing. 

These principles and the school conditions that support them are extremely difficult to establish and maintain. They require a great deal of effort and constantly renewed commitment, which is why they are rarely used and will be difficult for other schools to imitate. 

External policies—including authorizers’ accountability policy, how and at what level special education is funded, and the availability of external special education support providers and professional growth opportunities for educators—can bolster schools to establish and carry out the three core principles, but they can also interfere with these efforts. Independence and small size can help charter schools build strong institutional cultures, but can also make it difficult to achieve economies of scale that allow schools to efficiently hire specialized staff. 

Though it is challenging to follow the lead set by the most promising schools in our study, it is clear that even they have much work ahead to achieve excellence for all.

Why Do We Say "Blurred Lines" Instead of "Inclusion"?

For some it may seem strange that we avoid the language of inclusion when we describe academic programs that educate students with disabilities alongside their nondisabled peers.

The term inclusion is frequently misused in discussions of special education as simply the student with disability’s proximity to students without disabilities. Are they in the same classroom with their peers without disabilities? Blurring lines refers to a concept beyond physical location toward substantive access to academic content and relationships with peers in the general education classroom.

In the schools that seemed to blur the lines most consistently, the sense of shared community expressed by students with disabilities and their parents came from more than close proximity to their peers. It came from the shared experiences they were having with their peers and the fact that differentiation in learning was the norm across these schools for all students. Inclusion models, as traditionally understood, are certainly part of establishing and reinforcing those norms but they are not sufficient.

Overall, our research points to six important implications for schools and school systems:

Special education cannot be an isolated program. The best schools have a schoolwide commitment to serving every student’s unique needs. They seamlessly integrate students with unique learning needs into the instructional and social fabric of the school. 

Special education cannot be static. Excellent educators are continuously learning and bringing new approaches to their schools. They have a hunger to do better; school leaders encourage this mindset through excellent professional development and dedicated time for collaboration. 

Special education cannot be generic or standardized. Creativity and flexibility are required to adapt to individual needs—not blind adherence to set practices. More sharing of innovative and effective approaches, including technology, should be a priority across the nation’s schools. 

Quality teachers and leaders are nonnegotiable. High turnover rates and underresourced schools inhibit the delivery of high-quality services to students with disabilities. Teacher recruitment must be intentionally designed to find educators who embrace the idea that all adults in the building are responsible for all students, including those with disabilities.

Balancing rigor with effective accommodation and personalization, and planning for life beyond high school are common struggles. This was true even among the most advanced schools and those known for having high expectations. While some schools have already made great progress, there is much more to do before every child can get the education they need and deserve. 

Charter schools could use their flexibility in special education more effectively. Most of the approaches we observed in charter schools were fairly traditional, but in some promising schools we studied, they were delivered consistently and effectively. We discovered a few schools that operated further outside the box, to good effect—leading us to believe that charter schools could do more to innovate around staffing models or instructional approaches for improved efficiency and results. Policies, funding systems, authorizing practices, and collaborations with districts and other community organizations may be designed to better support this type of innovation.

Our findings, though exploratory, suggest a clear set of actions for schools, charter authorizers, and philanthropies. We recommend immediate steps all schools should take, as well as needed investments and changes to policy. However, even if every school adopted the strategies we identified in this report, it may not be enough to close the achievement gap between students with Individualized Education Programs (IEP) and their peers. In the schools in our study with the strongest overall outcomes, just half of students with IEPs had achieved grade-level proficiency. It is clear new breakthroughs will be necessary to enable all students to meet their full potential. 

All public schools, both charter and district, have work ahead to realize the potential of every student with unique learning needs and unique abilities. Realizing that goal will take time, money, and political will. It will also require deliberate efforts to cultivate new approaches to educating students with diverse learning needs. Charter schools, with their inherent flexibility, are logical places to launch these efforts. We at CRPE and NCSECS will continue to posit new ideas and research promising steps toward this end.

About the Study

This focused, multistate study attempts to build an evidence base about how charter schools are providing effective supports and services for students with disabilities. It is a critical step in building charter school capacity and leadership in special education. 

The authors are grateful to the many teachers, parents, and administrators who took time to share their perspectives and inform our findings.

We sought to identify high-leverage actions in charter schools that resulted in positive outcomes for students with disabilities. We considered policies and practices that are unique to the charter school context. And we examined previous research to confirm that the trends we observed are consistent with previous evidence. This was an exploratory study designed to identify hypotheses, so our findings can only suggest actions to try and test in the future. These cases are not necessarily representative of all charter schools, but they provide information-rich accounts of practices school leaders, educators, and parents see as important to the success of their own programs. Many of these practices have support in previous research documenting their effectiveness, though most of the schools and networks in our study have not been subject to a third-party impact study.

CRPE and NCSECS researchers visited 30 schools in 20 cities and towns across 14 states. We spent two days at each school and conducted semistructured interviews with special education and general education teachers, administrators, and parents. We observed general education inclusion classrooms in every school. We selected 20 of the schools based on promising academic or behavioral outcomes. In several cases, an expert in the field also identified the school as having a particularly compelling approach to special education. We also visited 10 schools representing 5 different charter management organizations (CMO) that have been asked by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pilot strategies based on the results of our study.

In the end, our diverse sample of 30 schools ranged in size from about 100 students to almost 1,500 students and were located in rural, small town, and urban contexts. Just over half the schools in our study opened more than ten years ago, and a handful were new, opening within the last five years. Though this study focused on middle and high school grades, a few of the schools operated as K–12 schools. 

We limited our search to schools that enrolled more than 8 percent and less than 50 percent students with disabilities. The median school in our study enrolled about 18 percent students with disabilities. (One school ended up falling below our 8 percent threshold in data that was updated after visiting the school.) 

We also sought schools serving students from less affluent households and those serving a large percent of students of color. Seventy-two percent of students in our median school were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Because our study includes schools located across rural, small town, and urban locales, there is a large variation in the percent of students of color. While the median school enrolled 8 percent and 28 percent black and Hispanic students, respectively, students of color made up more than 50 percent of the student body in 23 of the 30 schools we visited.

We sought schools that appeared to outperform their predicted performance for students with disabilities, controlling for the student composition of the school.1 Even so, proficiency rates for students with disabilities are appallingly low. Across the schools in our study, the standardized test performance and graduation rates of students with IEPs varied significantly but mirrored the performance of schools nationally. In the median school in our study, only 22 percent and 10 percent of students with disabilities scored proficient on their state assessments in English language arts and math respectively, though our study included schools where as many as half of the students with IEPs scored proficient. Nationally, for comparison, median state assessment proficiency rates for the 2016–2017 school year were 15 percent in both English and math for students with disabilities. The median school in our study graduated 70 percent of its students with IEPs in four years. Again, our study displayed a wide range: 35 percent to 90 percent of students with IEPs graduate in four years.

Demographic Profile of Sample Schools

Source: National data are as reported in the 2017-18 Federal Common Core of Data from the National Center on Education Statistics.

Location of Our Sample

Sample Schools: Years of Operation

Source: As reported by the sample schools for the 2018-19 school year.

English and Math Proficiency Rates for Students With and Without IEPs in Our Sample, 2015-16

Source: EDFacts Data Files, 2016-17.

Disability Types in Sample Schools Compared to Nation

Source: National data are as reported in the 2017-18 Federal Common Core of Data from the National Center on Education Statistics. Data from our sample are as reported by the schools for the 2018-19 school year.

A more detailed explanation of our sampling method and case study approach is included in the Resources section.

A note about naming schools in this report

We promised schools that participated in the study that we would keep their interviews and observations confidential. Throughout the report we largely refer to sources with abstract references such as “teachers reported to us…” On occasion, we share the school name. In each of these cases, we have written a separate profile of practice highlighting some aspect of this school’s approach to educating students with disabilities. We received explicit permission from the school to share its name when discussing that aspect of the school.