It’s been nearly two decades since Missouri passed a law allowing public charter schools to operate in St. Louis and Kansas City. You’d think that by now, charter schools would be old news. Unfortunately, a lack of understanding persists.
Most recently, in a Post-Dispatch letter-to-the-editor, a Ferguson resident responded to my commentary about expanding access to public charter schools. “Charter schools can pick and choose whom they allow in, unlike the public schools who, by law, must take in everyone including troubled and handicapped students,” he wrote.
It is true that typically charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools. Some, like the above letter writer, believe that means charter schools only accept the “crème of the crop,” taking away the “best and brightest” from traditional public schools. But that isn’t the case.
One report found that students with disabilities are simply less likely to apply to attend charter schools. This may be because parents prefer the resources their children receive at their local traditional public school. It may be because parents are counseled away from the option either by a charter school or the traditional public school their child attends. More likely than not, parents may be unaware that their child can even attend a charter school. That’s selection on the parent’s, not the school’s, part.
If a critic wanted to find out about charters serving students with special needs, they would need to look no further than St. Louis’ own EAGLE College Preparatory School. In its application, the charter school outlines the types of services it provides to students with special needs. Today, the percentage of students with disabilities at EAGLE is 13 percent. The statewide average incidence rate of students with special needs is 12.69 percent.
When I visited EAGLE, I had the opportunity to speak with Regional Special Education Director Elisha Ferguson, who told me, “Charter schools have gotten a bad rap, because people assume they don’t offer these (disability) resources. It’s a lack of information”
According to Ferguson, all students at EAGLE receive small-group support. Even students without disabilities who have been identified as needing additional help receive special attention. This is in contrast to the complicated and time-consuming process parents, teachers, and students must go through just for a child to receive an individualized education plan (IEP). Federal law and implementing regulations do not set a timeline for the IEP process—in some cases it can take months before a child receives special accommodations.
At EAGLE, you can’t tell which child has a disability and which doesn’t—every child is treated as having unique needs. This is the exact approach that we should be supporting, not stifling.
It’s unfortunate that misperceptions about charter schools still linger in Missouri policy discussion. Falsehoods that are spread through a lack of information, or exposure to misinformation, add nothing to the conversation. In fact, they may be preventing some children from receiving a quality education.