Leaders must consider students with disabilities as they evaluate school choice |Opinion

By Lauren Morando Rhim, Tennessean

In South Nashville last month, New Vision Academy suddenly closed its doors, after multiple complaints that included failure to appropriately serve students with disabilities. As a result, over 150 families scrambled to find new schools. Meanwhile, across town at Strive Collegiate Academy, students with disabilities are thriving. These charter schools were authorized by the same district. However, their track records on special education provide a stark contrast.

This disparity is not unique to Nashville. It is a challenge that comes with the increased independence charter schools enjoy. When that freedom is paired with thoughtful planning and deliberate execution, charters are able to offer education tailored to the individual needs of students, including those with disabilities. But freedom without appropriate supports and accountability can produce devastating results.

Many students with disabilities can perform at grade level when given the appropriate supports and services. For students with more significant needs, the quality of education can mean the difference between living independently and requiring lifelong support. While education is critical for all students, it is even more critical for students with disabilities.

However, despite noteworthy progress in education generally, Tennessee schools continue to struggle to educate students with disabilities. The achievement gap between students with disabilities and those without sits at an alarming 25 percent, and students with disabilities are much less likely to graduate from high school.

Given these statistics, it is no surprise that students with disabilities are increasingly exercising choice. There are over 4,000 students with disabilities attending charter schools in Tennessee, and that number will increase as the charter sector grows.   These students are seeking, and they deserve, the same quality options as their peers.

Against this backdrop, we are closely watching Gov. Bill Lee’s two school choice initiatives, creating a statewide charter commission and an education savings account program.

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools was founded to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to exemplary special education and related services in public charter schools. In alignment with our Principles of Equitable Schools, we urge the General Assembly to commit to using public dollars to increase school choice only when the legislation includes protections to guarantee that those schools deliver quality education to all students, including students with disabilities. Specifically, we ask that the legislation include three things:

— A requirement that schools employ equitable enrollment practices, so that students with disabilities have the same access to choice as their peers.

— Oversight to ensure that schools of choice are educating students in the least restrictive environment, with appropriate interventions, supports and protections in place.

— Charter authorizing requirements that mandate authorizers approve only schools that are prepared, from day one, to serve all students, regardless of their unique needs, and that require authorizers  to hold their schools accountable for living up to that commitment.

With these strong components in place, Tennessee policymakers can ensure that choice schools will be places where all students can thrive. Without them, school choice in Tennessee risks becoming a precarious game of chance, especially for students with disabilities.

Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” We hope the General Assembly passes legislation that invests wisely in the education of all students. The interest earned on that investment will be quality education that all Tennessee students deserve.

Lauren Morando Rhim is executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.


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