top of page

Lets Put The Special Back Into Education

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

"A country that ignores the consumer of its educational system will not prevail."

The Ugly Truth about Special Education in Charter Schools:

Seven Beautiful Ways to Fix Them

With all the talk about immigration, lost in the discusssion is our K-12 education system. In fact, none of the political contestants were asked to raise their hands to guarantee that all children actual receive an equitable and appropriate education. Why is that? Is it because parents aren’t making some noise, politicians view it as low interest to unimportant issue towards their electability. Or perhaps, no one even knows what going on education. Better yet, maybe we think all our problems were solve with the “No Child Left Behind” and “Every Child Can Succeed Act.” Whatever the reasoning, this is

causing injury to some of the approximately 50.7 million students attending

elementary and secondary schools in the United States. A country that ignores the

consumer of its educational system will not prevail. Because as John Dewey writes,

“Education is not preparation for life, its life itself.” Thousands of children within our

current special educational system are losing life over the lack of education services. So

I’d like to draw your attention to not general education, but special education; not just

public school but charter schools.

Give me a second, before I go into the ugly truth about special education in Charter

schools by letting me tell you a little bit about myself. More than thirty years ago, freshly

out of college, and excited, I clinched my first job working with individuals with

disabilities. The year, 1972, my tour of duties began within hospital, institutional setting

changing diapers on students with severe disabilities, to writing detailed goals and

objectives, tasks analysis, to teaching adaptive living skills and using applied behavior

analysis to changing behaviors; residential work details include changing an array of

aggressive and antisocial behaviors. Years was spent with individuals with cognitive,

academic, social and behavior delays; motor, speech and even visual disabilities.

And then in 1975 a ruling in the United States emerged which ensured that all children,

regardless of their differences, should have access to free public school education. This

law was called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act which was thirty years

later reauthorized in 2004 as the Individuals for Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Interestingly, while this is considered the first law to afford students with disabilities

equal access to education, actually, special education began with the infamous Brown

vs. the Board of Education in 1954 where it was determined that segregation based on

race violated equal educational opportunity. Consequently, the Brown decision affirm the

idea that all people, regardless of race, gender, or disability, have a right to public

education. As a civil rights baby, and recipient of the educational reformation movement,

special education is a significant part of my life.

That 1975 law drastically changed the template in servings individuals with disabilities.

No longer in residential settings, I was now deployed in one of the oldest and largest

care facilities in the United States, serving children and adults with disabilities. Here, I

had the rare opportunity of participating in several landmark cases. One being, May 30,

1974, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where plaintiffs

filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of former and present residents of Pennhurs

School and Hospital ("Pennhurst"), a state institution for persons with intellectual

disabilities. As s result of that lawsuit, Pennhurst closed, but it also significantly altered

our perception of students with disabilities. Other notable cases during the

deinstitutionalization movement in 1970”s include the Pennsylvania Assn. for Retarded

Children v.Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (PARC)and Mills v. Board of Education of

District of Columbia. Needless say, as I worked with my heart seeing the conditions that

many of these individuals had endured, all of these cases shaped my philosophy,

mindset and practice in working with students with disabilities.

Through my experience and teachers, this was a time of change, but more importantly a

time of caring; it was a time of making the impossible, possible. For example, teaching a

nonverbal student how to communicate; or physically disabled student how to feed

themselves. With seminal special education laws, and disabilities laws as my support,

in varying capabilities, I worked during the foundational years of special education as

therapist, teacher, administrator, laters as a school psychologist and educational

consultant, but through it all, always an advocate. No doubt, it’s the natural born

advocacy in me that’s gotten me in some hot water with administrator but also affords

me the right to share my concerns.

Education in the United States is filled with contradictions, politics and injustices. They

say the wheels of justice turn slowly. In brief, if we look at the 200 years after the United

States was established in 1776, nearly absolutely nothing was done for students with

disabilities. I might add, nothing was done positive because harm was afflicted on

people that looked, acted and thought differently than the norm. During the slavery

period beginning in 1669 to 1863, it was against the law to teach slaves to read or

write. And in 1890, the first “colored” school building in Winter Park, Florida was

opened to African American children, under the harsh conditions of the time. Institutions

were erected to hide anyone deem different from society. So since 1635, with the

opening of The Boston Latin School, the first public school in the United States to Brown

vs.The Board of Education, it would take us over 300 years to establish laws to include

all children in the public education system, and to legalize their rights to receive an

appropriate education.

With the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and other federal laws brought on

by parents, professionals and advocacy groups new terminology, systems, research

and even professions emerged to accommodate the new research and evolving

perception of students with disabilities. We no longer called people imbeciles, retarded,

idiots and other demeaning names. Terms like Free and Appropriate Education

(F.A.P.E), Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), Specially Designed Instruction,

Individualized Educational Plan, accommodations, reading, mobility and other

specialists, special education teacher took center stage. Quite natural, special students

warranted special teachers will special skills. Thus, two laws provided training for

professionals and teachers who worked with students with mental retardation ( PL

85-926 in 1958 and PL 86-158 in 1959). In 1961, the Teachers of the Deaf Act (PL

87-276) provided for training of teachers to work with the deaf or hard of hearing. In

1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (PL 89-10) and the State Schools

Act (PL 89-313) granted funds to states to help educate children with disabilities. In

1968, the Handicapped Children's Early Education Assistance Act of 1968 (PL 90-538)

funded early childhood intervention for children with disabilities. Colleges adjusted their

curriculums to include another profession to their list of courses in the school of

educations, special education teachers. Nowadays, special education has proliferated

to include other supportive services such as school psychology.

In keeping with that destiny, I mentioned earlier, becoming a school psychologist fit

perfectly. So when I was finishing my graduate studies in School Psychology, with

nearly thirty years under my belt in the field of special education and mental health

services, I received a call. It was a call from a charter school administrator for

assistance with their special education services, followed by another call, and the calls

kept coming. To my chagrin, what most of them wanted was to be in compliance with

the dictates from the states for special education to maintain their charter schools.

Charter schools movement started in 1974 by Ray Budde, a professor at the University

of Massachusetts Amherst. Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of

Teachers, embraced the concept in 1988, when he called for the reform of the public

schools by establishing "charter schools" or "schools of choice.”

From an idea to reality it would take nearly near 17 years before the first Charter School opened in Minnesota. Charter schools are publicly funded schools but operates independently of the established state school system in which it is located. They operate with freedom from some of the regulations that are imposed upon district schools with the exception of serving students with disabilities.

Still with the law in tow, I responded to each call with this intention of utilizing my

professional training and intrinsic caring nature to provide what I called cultural

responsive psychoeducational services. So when the first charter school opened in

Philadelphia in 1997, I found myself being recruited once again into another movement.

From the deinstitutionalization to charter movement or sometimes known as the charter

experiment. Of course, they didn’t care that school psychologist are “uniquely qualified

members of school teams that support students' abilities to learn and teachers' abilities

to teach. And that they possess expertise in mental health, learning, and behavior, to

help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.”

Nor did they care that I was product of an elite period in history in the transition from

educational negligence to educational support for individuals with disabilities.

So you asked, what’s the problem? We’ve created thousands of pages of laws? No one

dare break the law. In addition, we tout a plethora of ongoing research along with

creation of specialities and subspecialties for students with disabilities. Besides haven’t

we resolved any educational glitches with the charter school movement? The problem is

not with brick and mortar but mindset. Too many charter schools simply repeat the same

less than adequate mindset of the larger system but on a smaller scale with nothing

innovative or unique for students with disabilities. Are we simply moving them along,

and hiding the fact that too many are not really making progress? It’s a problem we

must address.

It’s a problem we must address. Because nationally students receiving special

education services in public schools are rising, according to a new federal report. There

were 6.7 million kids with disabilities in classrooms across the country during the

2015-2016 school year, accounting for 13.2 percent of all students. Many of those

students attend charter schools, with about a quarter of a million children receiving

services, according to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools

(NCSECS). A recent analysis of federal data by the National Center for Special

Education in Charter Schools found that students with disabilities make up about 10.6

percent of all charter school students, compared to about 12.5 percent in traditional

public schools.

Earlier on with charter schools, the ugly truth I saw was too many instances from too

many administrators an aloofness, and downright resistance in providing special

education services to students with disabilities. Initially, charter schools carried an air

that they could do whatever they wanted, even disregard the needs of students with

disabilities. This wasn’t a training issue, it was an attitude problem. As an insider, I

heard the complaints about students with disabilities. For example, One fiery charter

school administrator rather than evaluate the child, opted to retain this child for two

years. Finally, when the child was evaluated a diagnosis of intellectual disability was

rendered. By then, you had an 8-year child in kindergarten. Another, administrator told

me we don’t do that here,(meaning special education), insisting that the parent has to

transfer her child out of my school which posed a receptivity issue. Earlier on in the

charter school movement, administrators, some of them from the business sector frown

upon serving students with disabilities. They didn’t want to do it. In many instances the

boards were guilty by associations in not demanding accountability. Usually special

teachers were inexperienced, burnout or stuck in their ways with bad teaching habits in

special education students. Finally, with inclusion as the buzzword replacing

mainstreaming, charter schools physically include the student without the

supplementary services and aids to support them. Inclusion is of course one aspect of

Special Education, most if not all charter school include on their option, often their only,

as services for students with disabilities.

Over the years, enforcement polices changed, complaints grew and lawsuits occurred

reminding charter administrator that it was a Federal Law. However, things drastically

change when the state began monitoring the compliance issues with charter schools.

Between financially draining lawsuits and State Compliance monitoring, some charters

took note to bring in coordinators and directors to take charge of their services.

According to researchers from Columbia University and the University of Florida,

charter schools are less likely to respond to application inquiries from parents of

students with severe disabilities. This study question whether charter schools favor the

easiest-to-educate students when it comes to admissions either to save money or to

make their schools look better academically. It is much more costly to educate children

with disabilities because they require more time and resources than a general education

child does. So is this a reason a reason to ignore the quality of education for these

students. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see this problem so much as financial because

many special education students are not receiving more, usually they’re receiving the

same teaching resources, methodology and strategies, nothing special or individualized.

What is special about the services? If special, are students achieving progress or simply

being passed along? Or are we labeling and placing students, absent of special or

individual services. One thing for sure, we can ill afford to waste the lives of students

with disabilities by pretending or giving the illusion of “special” education services. It’s a

tragedy to get to a place where we’re going backwards given the battles fought to move


As a highly trained and experienced school psychologist, I say charter schools have a

golden opportunity to change the perception and outcome of students with various

disabilities. Charter Schools are able to forge a new path in delivering services to

students with disabilities, rather than duplicate a less than adequate model. Although,

my role is often relegated to psychoeducational evaluations, I know through the

evaluation process the potential that so often is ignored, and the plasticity of the brain.

Ignored potential turns in underachievement and producing disabilities. We must

respond to the long-term effect in systematically ignoring the individual needs of

students who will go out in the world feeling dis-abled rather than abled. To change the

trajectory for the students, here are my seven solutions to transform systems into

services; compliance into caring; dysfunctional into functional and dis-ability to ability by

any means necessary.

1. Special Education services must contain caring behaviors and attitudes.

Caring is to be concern. It means to recognize and attend to the needs of the

of student when faced with learning challenges, cognitive, social, behavioral and

physical . For example, when a child is unable to read exploring the obstacles,

transcending it and changing the child life. Caring is not watching failure or lack

of progress but intervening in it. With care, we change our attitudes towards the

student replacing it with an intention for them to do well. Research indicates that the caring pedagogy provides a powerful means to student learning improvement, one meriting the greatest attention by educators and education researchers. Success in my work with individuals with disabilities was due to the principles of caring above all the technical training.

2. A grand receptivity is needed towards students with disabilities.

Receptivity is to be welcoming and responsive to ideas, impressions, or

suggestions. It’s also a letting go of the nonsense that we consciously or

unconscious believe about their abilities. Receptivity is the ability to listen, to

receive, and a readiness to try another way to teach a skills or interact with a

student. With receptivity, we refrain from pre-juding or thinking that we know, we

become open to learning. Receptivity transforms us into teachers and advocates

of the truth. Receptivity is an essential quality for the learning environment.

3. Professionally Development should be more a professionally transforming. One is

an assumption of completion, and the other is an ongoing process in learning. Let's

be honest, most teachers do the same thing they’ve been doing despite the

professional development they attended. Our behaviors don’t change unless the

environments reinforce that change. What’s the point of professional development?

It should be to inform, inspire and transform. Who delivers the knowledge,

expertise, evidence-based research is important? Lawyers teach lawyers,

educators teach educators. Lawyers litigate, teachers teach. Recently, some

charters schools have resorted to bringing lawyers for their special education

professional development process to avert impending litigations. But how does that

improve in writing an IEP, developing a functional behavioral analysis, and

adopting mindfulness towards progress monitoring data? Professionally transform

teachers engage an ongoing holistic process in realizing the needs of the student,

and even the environment. Transforming experiences also entails sensitizing

teachers to the history of the plight of students who have been forgotten and

uneducated. If we don’t know that history, then we’re bound to repeat it.

4. Technology is here, and everywhere. But some facts of life still require human t

human contact, and one of them is in teaching students with disabilities. Over

reliance on computerized Individualized Education Evaluation affects the reliability

and validity of the IEP. Too frequently, these documents are often not

individualized, but copies of previous IEP or the same one from previous years.

Additionally, they lack substantive goals. An internal system of quality

assurance(QA) should be set up to review IEP’s for functionality, research based

and individuality. IEPS should be put to this three-pong test to determine if they


5. Annual, not three year re-evaluations should be mandated so that lack of

progress is addressed n one year, not three years. Think about what that means

to lose three years in child’s life on something that is not working. It’s devastating

to wait three years only to find out that the checks and balance in the form of

progress monitoring broke down, and teacher inconsistency Subsequently,

Countless student, have gone through their schools years under an inadequate

on faulty teaching methodologies and strategies.

6. Parent training and participation is a sensitive issue. You can’t force parents to

attend the meetings or parent training. Neither are parents compelled to have

their children evaluated. At the same time, you can motivate them. Several of my

charter Schools parents do not show up for the training. Many parents in charter

school do not attend the parent training, evaluation report meetings or

Individualized Education Report meeting. Preferring to have paperwork sent

home or over the phone. With public service announcement, motivation,

encouragement, community, outreach, every school should strive for parents

participation. As well, the intake process of students, where the parent is there, is

an optimal to provide parents with training packets, and special education

orientation emphasis their responsibility to attend training.

7. School Psychology is a specialty .

Expertise include:Data collection and analysis, Assessment, Progress monitoring, School-wide practices to promote learning, Consultation and collaboration, academic/learning

interventions, mental health interventions, behavioral interventions and special

education services. Charter schools tend to underutilize the expertise of school

psychologist.their services. In part this is due to the lack of understanding and

exposure to field of school psychology, and the value it brings to your learning


Along with these seven antidotes for the delivery of an excellent Special Education

Service, mindfulness is paramount. Understand if we miss the opportunity to effect a

positive change on the lives of students with disabilities, we harming not only that child