Eva Moskowitz, Union Leaders, and Special Education

Today's  Wall Street Journal features an fiery editorial by Eva Moskowitz, founder of the widely-acclaimed Success Academy Charter Schools, about the “big lie” that NYC charter schools “cream off” high-performing students and shun those with special needs. Ms. Moscowitz, no pal of anti-charter Mayor Bill de Blasio, takes aim at the  “outrageous assertion by Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña at the Crain’s Future of New York City conference last November that the city’s charter schools—which admit students by random lottery—game the system by sending ‘postcards”’ to top performers on state exams inviting them to apply.”

Here’s Ms. Moskowitz on the “myth” and “slander” directed at charter schools retention rate of regular ed and special ed students:
The IBO report, released in January, found that—contrary to what some people have come to believe—“students at charter schools stay at their schools at a higher rate than students at nearby traditional public schools.” The IBO reported that charter schools in the city retain 64% of their students, compared with 56% of students retained by district schools. Among special-education students, the IBO found that 53% stay at their charter schools, versus 49% at district schools. 
This means that no matter how many times UFT President Michael Mulgrew repeats the slander in press releases, in letters to his members and in newspaper columns that charter schools unfairly “counsel out,” i.e., expel, struggling students just before state exams—it simply isn’t true.
It’s a little more complicated than that, at least in the world of special education.  While children with mild learning differences are easily integrated into general education classes, children with moderate to severe cognitive handicaps require a bevy of extra resources and accommodations. Often, those sorts of programs are found at large schools that have the scale to put together an appropriately-outfitted and staffed classroom of children with, for example, autism, or a private special education school targeted to that diagnosis. Parents of children with special needs are generally pretty savvy about individual school offerings and would be less likely to want their child at a small regular ed school without the necessary scale, charter or traditional.

This doesn’t mean that charter schools shouldn’t serve children with special needs. In fact, this NYC dispute points to a missed opportunity for charter school advocates: charter schools specifically for children with disabilities. Other states do this successfully: this Ed Week article kvells about the 90-student Arizona Autism Charter School and the “Potentials Charter School in Palm Beach County, Fla., which specializes in serving students with cerebral palsy and offers speech and occupational therapy for students who are unable to walk or talk.”

Such schools run up against federal and state mandates that children with disabilities be served in the LRE, or “least restricted environment,” i.e., integrated into classrooms with typical peers. In New Jersey that’s not so much an issue since we historically have a sky-high proportion of disabled students sent out of district: about 9% of all children eligible for special education services. (See here for more detail.) Aspiring special education charter school applicants would no doubt be discouraged by N.J.’s outdated charter school law, which allows no facilities aid. (Facilities for children with special needs are far more expensive than facilities for typical kids.)

Parents of children with significant disabilities should have access to an array of school choices: typical schools that carefully craft programming and facilities to adapt to a spectrum of special needs, special education schools that serve specific disabilities, and charter schools too. But such a venture will require less brawling and more cooperation among politicians, school chancellors,  lobbyists. and charter school leaders.

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