Rhim: 4 Ways Philanthropy Can Set the Bar for Special Education in Charter Schools

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Charter schools are frequently criticized, particularly by civil rights communities, for their inadequate attention to equity and quality. They also face major backlash for failing to provide appropriate services for, or altogether pushing out, students with disabilities.
While some charter schools do embrace their responsibilities to students with disabilities and even excel at doing so, others do not, thereby shortchanging these students and reinforcing the narrative that charter schools try to avoid — rather than serve — marginalized students.
Building on the evidence of success with students with disabilities I have seen in some charter schools, I urge the philanthropic community to help the sector more proactively change the story. It is time that funders expect and incentivize excellence for students with disabilities by more intentionally incorporating special education into their grant-making processes and catalyzing innovation.
Private philanthropy plays a vital role in public education by providing critically needed financial support. A 2014 study of education finance conducted by the University of Arkansas documented that charter schools raise an average of $552 per student per year from private sources; traditional public schools raise an average of $571. This represents 5.7 percent and 4.5 percent of their total budgets, respectively. But philanthropies, specifically because of how they give versus just how much they give, can have a potentially exponentially greater impact on how the sector addresses educating students with disabilities by taking four key steps as part of making grants to charter schools and networks:
1. Ask about special education programming in grant applications and interviews.
Many of the foundations active in the K-12 education space, as well as charter school authorizers, require little if any information regarding charter schools’ plans to serve students with disabilities. In some instances, applicants have to provide little more than a blanket assurance that they will comply with relevant federal and state laws to be funded or authorized. But these assurances can be somewhat hollow, as schools frequently have an inadequate understanding of the depth and breadth of special education responsibilities.
Funders providing support to charter schools or networks should include questions regarding:
     1. How will the school accommodate students’ learning differences in their instructional program?
     2. What percentage of their budget will be allocated to providing necessary supports and services?
     3. How will they measure and track their success with students who learn differently?
By including just these three questions, funders will communicate that they value equity and access, and signal to the school developer that they, too, must bake it into the school’s DNA, rather than treat it as an afterthought.
2. Develop nuanced performance metrics that reward schools for success with students who learn differently.
A defining characteristic of students who qualify to receive special education services is that, for a variety of underlying reasons, they learn differently and may have absolute performance and growth projections that are different from what is considered typical. Funders should develop nuanced performance metrics that communicate the importance of ensuring that students with disabilities are held to appropriately high standards and show tangible growth from year to year. In doing so, they also reinforce that learning differences do not equate to blanket low expectations.
3. Embed special education performance metrics in grant reporting.
Building on the first two recommendations, foundations should not only ask about services for students with disabilities at the beginning of the relationship but also at reporting touch points. Specifically, they should explicitly ask schools to provide both special education enrollment and program quality data. If foundations signal that these metrics are part of their overall definition of quality, schools will prioritize these outputs. This is not to say that outcomes for students with disabilities should be the lead priority. Overall school performance, after all, is the foundation upon which exemplary special education programs are built, but special education outcomes should be a metric.
4. Incentivize and invest in innovations.
The philanthropic community must push innovations that stand to benefit all students in the long run. New Schools Venture Fund, for example, recently issued the Special Education Ignite Challenge to encourage entrepreneurs to develop technologies that would benefit students with disabilities. The award is enabling some organizations to expand their reach and encouraging others to enter the special education market. Similarly, the federal Charter School Program (CSP) National Leadership Activities competition in 2014 prioritized efforts to improve services to students with disabilities. Four of the six grantees later allocated significant portions of their award to projects that would build charter schools’ capacity to enroll and educate students with disabilities. Having worked in the charter space since the beginning, I can attest that the CSP grant priority catalyzed the most significant investment in special education in the sector to date.
Investments that incentivize innovations also stand to break the understandable but ultimately short-sighted cycle of risk aversion. Finn, Manno & Wright’s (2016) research on the distribution of philanthropic dollars documented that dollars are concentrated in geographic regions and student groups that reflect donors’ priorities. Finn and his colleagues ask whether these priorities may be leading to a failure to support other needs and overlooking important opportunities for growth. While always going with a school that has a track record of success is obviously appealing, it has the potential to create a somewhat anemic supply of schools and school leaders willing to take risks. One outstanding exception to this is the Emerson Collective’s XQ Super School initiative that is channeling more than $100 million to innovative high school programs, including the Brooklyn Lab School, which is leveraging its robust personalized learning approach to create effective and inclusive classrooms for students with disabilities.
In closing, private foundations play a critical role in encouraging, supporting, and sustaining the development and growth of high-quality charter schools. While being mindful not to undercut the core principle of autonomy or to restrict schools with unnecessarily burdensome requirements, funders can be key to the development and replication of not only compliant, but also exemplary, programs for students with disabilities.

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