Opponents often argue that charter schools tend to serve a disproportionately low number of special education students. And, while there may be exceptions and certainly a great deal of variation, that argument is essentially accurate. Regardless of why this is the case (and there is plenty of contentious debate about that), some charter school supporters have acknowledged that it may be a problem insofar as charters are viewed as a large scale alternative to regular public schools.
For example, Robin Lake, writing for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, takes issue with her fellow charter supporters who assert that “we cannot expect every school to be all things to every child.” She argues instead that schools, regardless of their governance structures, should never “send the soft message that kids with significant differences are not welcome,” or treat them as if “they are somebody else’s problem.” Rather, Ms. Lake calls upon charter school operators to take up the banner of serving the most vulnerable and challenging students and “work for systemic special education solutions.”
These are, needless to say, noble thoughts, with which many charter opponents and supporters can agree. Still, there is a somewhat more technocratic but perhaps more actionable issue lurking beneath the surface here: Put simply, until test-based accountability systems in the U.S. are redesigned such that they stop penalizing schools for the students they serve, rather than their effectiveness in serving those students, there will be a rather strong disincentive for charters to focus aggressively on serving special education students. Moreover, whatever accountability disadvantage may be faced by regular public schools that serve higher proportions of special education students pales in comparison with that faced by all schools, charter and regular public, located in higher-poverty areas. In this sense, then, addressing this problem is something that charter supporters and opponents should be doing together.