Have you ever stood on a slab of frozen marble for three hours? My boss and I have. You see, though beautiful, the marble that constitutes the steps and columns of the Supreme Court of the United States are cold in January.
But we were there for the kids and so was everyone else we met in line. So we stood there with progressively numb feet, waiting to gain admission to the oral arguments for Endrew F. v. Douglass County School District. We made friends with special education advocates of varying stripes—parents, professionals, and attorneys—all patiently waiting on the cold stone and sharing hand warmers to put in our shoes and stories about what brought us to the steps of the highest court in the land that January morning.
The Court was scheduled to consider the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Respondents argued that the standard the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals adopted—a just-more-than-trivial benefit—was sufficient under the law.
We disagree. We here at the National Alliance, along with our friends at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, believe that the education standard all children receive should be more robust than merely more than trivial. And so we wrote an amicus brief in support of the Petitioners—a boy with autism and his family—and argued that the law promised him a standard that was more robust than “more than de minimis.” While the National Alliance’s work focuses on the charter school sector as a whole, and not specifically special education, many charter schools share the goal “of setting high expectations and serving all students, including those with special needs.”
After the argument, our new special education advocate friend questioned that goal. “I’m surprised to hear you all wrote an amicus for this side,” she said, “I’ve always heard that charters don’t serve special education students well.” Time and time again, I hear this refrain. Of course, there is no all-encompassing retort—by definition, every charter school is as unique as the individual community it serves. However, all charter schools are required to follow federal law protecting the rights of students with disabilities. And all charters are working within a system that expects innovation in exchange for their autonomy from some of the traditional regulations on public schools. As we noted in our brief, “charter schools are founded upon the belief that individual schools should be able to design and deliver a program of instruction that sets high expectations for all of the students it serves and then be held accountable to meet those expectations.”
Many charter schools focus primarily or entirely on students with disabilities and some even specialize in serving students with a particular disability. Additionally, charter leaders assert that they are less likely to identify a child as needing special education services, using their autonomy to intervene in the child’s learning so that s/he can fully participate in the mainstream classroom environment—the goal of the IDEA. However, because many charter schools function as their own local education agency (LEA) and therefore lack economies of scale available to traditional public schools, some may be less capable of efficiently providing special services to students with disabilities. It is a myth, however, that public charter schools systematically refuse to serve special education students well.
We are still waiting to hear which argument swayed the Supreme Court Justices. But while we wait – thankfully not on cold stone, but in the warmth of our offices—we will continue to advocate for a student’s right to choose an excellent public education that meets all their needs meaningfully.