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Charter schools often struggle to meet special needs

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/30/2019 4:34:10 PM
Modified: 12/30/2019 4:33:55 PM

When former Lebanon School District Superintendent Mike Harris co-founded Ledyard Charter School in 2009, he had a specific group of students in mind.

“We had kids who literally would not walk into the public school building any longer,” said Harris, who still serves as chairman of the Ledyard board of trustees. “Their experiences were so adverse that they wouldn’t go there.”

In many cases, the adversity that compels students to drop out of school stems in part from a learning disability. The link between drop-out rates and disabilities is clear: In one study, students who had been diagnosed with a learning disability dropped out of high school at nearly three times the rate of students in the general population. The most common reason, according to the 2017 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, was that they disliked school.

Earlier this month, New Hampshire legislators rejected a controversial $46 million federal grant designed to create more charter schools in the state, with a particular emphasis on schools catering to at-risk populations. The debate surrounding the grant highlighted, among other things, the challenges of crafting special education services — and measuring their outcomes — in the charter school environment.

When a charter school enrolls a student with special needs, educators at the charter school have to create special education services in collaboration with the school district where the student lives. According to state law, the district is responsible for funding the student’s special education services, but the arrangements can vary. In some cases, the student returns to his or her district school for services, while in others, the district either sends staff to the school or contracts with a third party to provide services.

How well these arrangements work from a financial, logistical and academic perspective depends on who you talk to.

About 20 students from the Lebanon School District attend Ledyard Charter School annually, and about 30% of those students receive special education services. District staff work closely with Ledyard staff to design Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for these students, and the charter school contracts with a third party to provide services.

“It’s very much a collaborative team effort,” said Lebanon Superintendent Joanne Roberts. “It hasn’t been burdensome in any way.”

But not every relationship runs so smoothly. “There tends to be a lot of contention around special education,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

Charter schools in New Hampshire are underfunded to begin with, said Morando Rhim, a Norwich resident who served on the Ledyard board for seven years. On top of that, state laws give the public schools authority in negotiating payment for special education services, she said.

Because traditional public schools serve a much larger population than charter schools, they mostly employ their own special education providers. When they need to contract out, they can usually get a better rate than a charter school can, Morando Rhim said.

“What happens is that when a charter school gets an estimate for services (from a third party), the public school won’t always pay because they know they can get it for cheaper,” she said.

In such cases, students are sometimes required to shuttle back and forth between schools to receive services.

Other times, it’s educators who bear the burden, traveling to multiple schools to provide services. “I know one special education teacher who’s going to nine different charter schools,” said Megan Tuttle, executive director of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, that state’s largest teachers union.

But if charter schools at times struggle to provide optimum services for students with disabilities, advocates say they can play a valuable preventive role, too.

When the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee rejected the grant on a party-line vote earlier this month, some legislators argued that students need fewer special education services when they’re in an environment that suits their needs.

Roberts said she’s found that theory to be true. “For some students who struggle in the public school setting, the charter school provides an alternate learning environment,” she said. “It’s really the smaller size environment that benefits certain students … particularly those with social-emotional or behavioral issues.”

Along with leading to better outcomes for students, the charter school option sometimes translates into significant cost savings, Roberts said. In some cases, Ledyard serves as an alternative to an out-of-district placement, which can cost the district $50,000-$60,000 per student, she said.

A growing number of families are beginning to see charter schools as an option for their children with disabilities. According to a new report by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, the percentage of charter school enrollment taken up by students with disabilities rose from about 8% in 2008 to about 11% in 2015 nationwide. That’s approaching the roughly 13% of public school students with disabilities.

The gap may be small, but Morando Rhim still finds it problematic because it points to the barriers keeping some students with disabilities out of the charter schools in their communities.

“If we’re going to have charter schools, they have to be open to all kids,” she said. “It’s not enough to say technically we’re open to everyone.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268.

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