The Real Challenge facing Charter Schools and Special Education

​​In 2014, New York City’s budget office released a report making the claim that attrition among charter schools of special education students was higher than their district public school counterparts. Charter school critics, including Mayor deBlasio and Chancellor Fariña, jumped on this opportunity to suggest that charter schools pushed out lower performing students in order to increase test scores.

The following year, however, the city’s Independent Budget Office released another report that overturned the previous report’s findings, indicating that children with disabilities stayed at charter schools at a slightly higher rate than they did at traditional public schools. The discrepancy between the two reports was attributed to a change in the metrics used in the analysis. Charter schools were vindicated by these new findings, but the debate about both reports failed to include the most important issue facing charter schools: an inability to effectively serve students with special needs due to excessive delays and insufficient staffing in the NYC Department of Education’s Committees for Special Education.

No one would argue that providing the mandated services to our scholars with the greatest needs should be the top priority of any school system. Yet, too many of those same scholars are not receiving those services because they have long delayed annual reviews or wait years for initial evaluations. Charter schools, just like our traditional public school counterparts, rely on understaffed committees on special education to conduct these essential reviews and evaluations and when they don’t happen, children pay the price.

The data at our school is alarming. Currently, La Cima Elementary Charter School has 26 students who did not receive annual reviews last year, 18 students who have not had their triennials scheduled yet. We also have 8 students awaiting initial evaluations, some have been waiting since December 2014. We also have 4 students awaiting re-evaluation so that their individual educational plans can be updated for them to receive the appropriate services. In total, we have 56 scholars who are in need of support from our Committee of Special Education and no concrete sense of when this support will come. We don’t even have a caseworker yet.

This lack of attention has put a tremendous strain on our teachers and our families who simply want the best for their scholars.

Amidst all of the political back and forth about charter schools, no one seems to be discussing the most important people in the debate—our students with the greatest needs. Charter schools, the Department of Education and the Mayor’s Office should be working together for our students, not bickering over who is doing more or less. As we say at La Cima, “scholars and families first.”

By Tara Phillips, Executive Director, La Cima Charter School


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