School choice is a big part of public education in Colorado, and charter schools feature prominently in our system — serving about 1 in 7 public school students. Since choice is central to Colorado education, it needs to work for everyone.

Alex Medler, left, and Lauren Morando Rhim

But Colorado has a problem: Charter schools enroll a smaller proportion of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, 7.4% versus 11.4%, respectively. Almost every other state with charter schools does better. Fortunately, we do have districts implementing promising strategies, and the state is considering policy changes that should make a positive difference for students with disabilities.

Over the last year, our two organizations, the Center for Learner Equity and the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers examined enrollment trends and factors that influence the experiences of both families and students.

Overall, our interviews with school personnel and parents paint an unflattering picture. They perceive that some charter schools are unable or unwilling to educate students with disabilities, particularly students who require more intensive support. Parents reported that their perception is reinforced when they encounter school personnel who are less than enthusiastic about educating their student or question whether the school is a good “fit” for their child.

Our research also documented that districts that oversee charter schools can informally influence parents of students with disabilities. Parents of students who require more significant support reported that district and charter personnel often counsel them to enroll in district programs rather than in charter schools.

Regardless of their rights, parents understandably are hesitant to enroll their child with a disability in a school that seems unable or unwilling to provide appropriate support.

The flip side: Without students enrolled, schools do not develop more robust programs. This narrow programming fosters the perception that charters cannot educate students requiring more specialized support. We found that while charter schools have made efforts to enroll more students with disabilities, families’ beliefs that charters do not want to or cannot appropriately serve their student’s needs are sticky and, in essence, become self-fulfilling.

There is good news and some bright spots. The State Board of Education recently prohibited charter schools from asking about a student’s disability status before enrollment.

Another proposed change requires districts to tell parents why a student with moderate-to-significant needs must attend a particular program if they can’t get their chosen school. Students’ individual needs must drive such decisions. These changes will empower parents to engage with districts if they disagree.

Colorado also has strong examples of districts working on these issues. If all Colorado charter schools had Denver’s enrollment rates of students with disabilities, we would close more than 75 percent of the gap between charters and traditional public schools.

Denver Public Schools partnered with charter schools to ensure more students requiring significant support enroll in charters. Denver helped high-performing charter schools create center-based programs — a term that describes programs within schools that concentrate resources on a group of students with similar needs, such as students on the autism spectrum.

Denver then invested resources in their charter-school centers at a level similar to what they spend on centers in district-operated schools.

Charter-school networks, such as Strive Prep Charter Schools, have embraced this work, and have developed sought-after and inclusive programs that emphasize educating students with disabilities alongside their general-education peers.

While a laudable effort, some of Denver’s programs remain highly segregated. Moreover, concentrating a district’s students with a specific disability in one school or center, in general, can raise concerns about equity and inclusion in both charters and traditional public schools.

Denver also is a leader in designing a more inclusive approach to school choice. Denver’s district-wide open enrollment program ignores a student’s disability status unless students require more intense services provided in center-based programs. This gives most families of students with disabilities the same choices available to the rest of Denver’s families.

Equally important, this approach signals to charter schools that they, just like all public schools, can and must be able to appropriately serve the majority of students with disabilities who don’t require the kinds of unique services that districts traditionally provide in a center.  

Charter-school advocates drafted legislation that was recently introduced that would allow charter schools to network to run special-education programs independent of school districts. Districts would still oversee the school’s performance, but special-education programming would become the responsibility of the charter schools working with a charter network, charter collaboratives, or the state Charter School Institute. This potential change has pros and cons, and state leaders should carefully consider how any structural change might improve or undermine efforts to educate all students in charter schools well.

In addition to policy change, we must explore steps to ensure students with a range of disabilities can enroll and thrive in charter schools.

First, parents require greater awareness of charter schools’ responsibilities and information about programs and support their students with disabilities — including those who require more intense support — can access in charter schools. Discussions with parents should focus on adapting programs to accommodate students with disabilities rather than binary discussions leading to their exclusion due to vague concerns about “fit.”

Second, we need greater transparency between school districts and charter schools about funding and special-education decision-making.

Furthermore, efforts to increase the proportion of students with disabilities in charter schools should not lead to educating more students in segregated settings. Instead, efforts should prioritize inclusion in general-education classrooms, which provides the greatest opportunity to access the full curriculum and appropriately high expectations.

Alex Medler, of Boulder, is executive director of the Colorado Association of Charter School Authorizers. Lauren Morando Rhim, of Norwich, Vt., is executive director and co-founder of The Center for Learner Equity.

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