Fourteen percent of U.S. students have a disability—but for far too long, systemic ableism has left them an afterthought. Despite federal legislation requiring that all students receive a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), students with disabilities face wide and persistent achievement gaps. For students of color with disabilities, who face both structural racism and ableism, outcomes are even worse.
Simply put, we have become too comfortable failing students with disabilities.
Creating public schools that work for all students will require significant change. But while the education reform efforts of the past several decades have led to important innovations, charter schools and high-choice districts have not fully or consistently leveraged the autonomy granted by state charter school laws to benefit students with disabilities. Research has documented that charter schools can struggle to amass adequate capacity to provide quality special education programs and must navigate systems built for traditional districts, not for charters that often serve as their own autonomous or semi-autonomous districts. Misconceptions about charter schools’ ability and obligation to educate students with disabilities remain widespread. And a patchwork of federal, state, and district guidance and funding have created a maze that is difficult for schools and families alike to navigate.
In response to these compelling needs, Lauren Morando Rhim and Paul O’Neill launched the Center for Learner Equity (then the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools) in October 2013. The Center is the first organization to focus solely on proactively working with states, charter authorizers, special education and charter school advocates, and other stakeholders to raise awareness, improve access, create dynamic learning opportunities, and address barriers that prevent students with disabilities from accessing a high-quality education in the public school of their choice. The Center’s work is guided by four priorities:
- Document & communicate vital facts to policymakers, advocates, and authorizers about the status and progress of students with disabilities in charter schools and high-choice districts.
- Inform policy at state and federal levels to address barriers and create opportunities for students with disabilities to access effective instructional programs and individualized support in schools of choice.
- Develop coalitions and form essential partnerships to collaborate, find common ground, and create economies of scale in order to change the status quo for students with disabilities in traditional and charter public schools.
- Build capacity for excellence in the field that translates to exemplary supports and services for students with disabilities in the charter sector and beyond.
Since its launch, the Center has worked to proactively ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to rigorous educational opportunities in all public schools and to catalyze efforts to foster innovation that leads to equitable outcomes.