School choice and special education

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Special education has been sparking conversation again. Locally, MinnPost has produced two pieces digging into a report on the state of special education [PDF] in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Nationally, Education Next has run an online forum discussing charter schools and special education. Some key themes connect these writings.

School Choice and High-Stakes Testing Concentrate Students With the Greatest Needs In a Few Schools

All three of the writers at Education Next agreed that charter schools are serving a smaller share of students receiving special education than are district schools, and that the students with the most significant (and most expensive) needs often attend district schools. Robin Lake observed, “[I]t’s a particular problem when charters comprise nearly half of all public schools in a district,” and Pedro Noguera noted that the combination of choice policies (including, but not limited to charter schools) with high-pressure testing systems makes the problem worse.

It’s Not Just About Serving Students but Serving Them Well

Another common thread running through the Education Next articles, as well as MinnPost’s coverage of special education in MPS, is that admitting students with special needs is not enough. It’s also important to provide effective services that keep expectations high and avoid stigma.

The report’s hopeful tone illustrates another Education Next author’s point. Gary Miron reported that school districts are more efficient at providing special education than charter schools, and spend less on administration. Even with its struggles, MPS will likely have an easier time implementing positive changes than would a charter system in aggregate.

(Miron’s finding that most of the difference in per-pupil spending between charters and districts is the result of “district schools’ higher spending on special education and student support services,” is also interesting.)

You Can Do a Lot of Things Right and Still Struggle

The persistent existence of problems doesn’t mean that everything has gone wrong. The MPS report praises the district for its many services, its passionate staff, and its parent engagement on special education. Still, the report offers several suggestions for how the district can better activate the capacity it’s already built.

Conclusion

Decades after the first federal legislation on the subject, we’re still grappling with how to ensure special education services are delivered effectively, efficiently, and equitably. Some of our policies can unintentionally exacerbate the problem, and being strong in some areas is not always enough. We still have a lot to do to fulfill the goals of special education.