CharterFolk Contributor Gina Plate – Charter Schools’ Inclusive Educational Models and Instructional Practices are Changing the National Discussion About How We Educate Students with Disabilities

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today I am delighted to share with you a Contributor Column from Gina Plate, Vice President of Special Education and Regulatory Affairs for the California Charter Schools Association.

I provide a brief bio for Gina below.

Gina serves as Vice President, Special Education and Regulatory Affairs for the California Charter Schools Association. For the past 10 years, Gina has led the CCSA Special Education team, which provides information and guidance to charter schools surrounding a variety of special education issues, including, but not limited to, focusing on state and SELPA-level special education policy issues and doing in-depth advocacy work with groups of charter schools. Additionally, in 2012, Gina was appointed by California Governor Jerry Brown to the Statewide Advisory Commission on Special Education on which she served for 8 years, ultimately completing her term in 2020.

I will also add that I had the opportunity to work with Gina for many years at CCSA and found her a constant source of resourcefulness and inspiration, helping unleash profound improvement in special education practice across the entire charter school movement and stimulating policy change that has helped all special education students in California. I extend to Gina a very special thanks for having contributed such a thoughtful piece.

Let’s get on to it!


Charter Schools’ Inclusive Models and Instructional Practices are Changing the National Discussion About Special Education

Charter schools were envisioned and have ultimately been realized as innovation labs, free from many of the constraints traditional education systems face when trying to evolve models of quality education toward more inclusive and innovative delivery and practices. This opportunity offered new, equity-focused schools designed from the build to support all students, including students with disabilities. These new models of educational innovation have allowed students with disabilities access to an education more closely aligned to the spirit and intent of the federal Individuals with Disabilities ACT (IDEA), where each and every student is presumed competent and has the right to be educated with their peers without disabilities.

National Background

45 years ago, Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the foundational law which guarantees the rights of students with disabilities to receive a free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

A fundamental principle of IDEA is that children with disabilities should have access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom to the maximum extent possible. Decades of research …

… have demonstrated that students with disabilities fare better in general education classes with their peers compared to self-contained settings. Specifically, research has shown a positive correlation between time spent in general education settings and academic achievement, instruction time, attendance, and accountability. 

While IDEA does not explicitly define inclusion, according to the United Nations …

… inclusive education can be understood to be a process that necessitates a continuing and proactive commitment to the elimination of barriers impeding the right to education, together with changes to culture, policy and practice of all schools to accommodate all students. Practically speaking, this means children with and without disabilities participate in learning and community activities together. Inclusion teaches children to respect differences and develop a deeper commitment to diversity by providing students the opportunity to develop deep relationships with peers whose strengths and abilities may be very different from their own.

A Breakthrough in California

Charter schools across the country have not always had the flexibility or autonomy to design programs and receive funding to support students with disabilities in their schools.  In fact, in many states, charter schools have been specifically denied the opportunity to receive the full legal authority, operational autonomy and funding needed to serve students with disabilities. 

In the case of special education in California charter schools, for nearly two decades, authorizers, generally local school districts, held onto state and federal funds and assumed responsibility for all services provided to students with an Individualized Educational Plan (“IEP”).  These circumstances essentially prevented charter schools from operating their own independent special education programs.

In 2009, charter schools in California successfully advocated for a policy breakthrough that would allow them to take responsibility for all students that enrolled in the charter, including students with disabilities. 

On a 10-0 vote, the State Board of Education approved new legal options expanding charter schools’ ability to offer special education services. Schools could either be a school of their authorizer and be a part of the district/authorizer special education programs, or they could apply to be an Local Educational Agency for special education purposes and join a Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), which are the regional administrative units overseeing IDEA implementation in California. 

This continuum of options allowing a charter to design a program that leverages funding and expertise has produced an increase in both academic and social emotional growth for students with disabilities.  With California’s focus on increasing access and outcomes for students with disabilities, charter schools have been afforded the opportunity to make remarkable progress over the past decade.  They have demonstrated what is possible when educational models are built with a universal access and equity frame, and have high expectations for all students.

California’s Charter Schools Use Their Autonomy to Make Progress on Inclusive Education

California has 1310 charter schools serving over 700,000 students. And despite ongoing criticism that charter schools do not serve representative populations of students, independent charter schools are shown to serve populations that are similar to traditional public schools. 

While demographics are very similar between district schools and charter schools, over the past decade, special education practices have evolved to be very different. 81% of students with disabilities attending charter schools are served in a general ed setting with supports and services to meet with individual needs more than 80% or more of their day.  These are percentages that are far higher than is found in traditional public schools. While funding is a common excuse for exclusion, the flexibility offered to charter schools has allowed them to blend and braid funds in a way that way has made it possible to support students in inclusive settings.  Over time, a number of highly respected models have emerged offering inclusive settings for students with disabilities. Celebrated schools include:

Chime Institute in the San Fernando Valley.

Wish Charter Schools in West Los Angeles.

And TLC Charter School in Orange County.

These schools have become labs of innovation serving very diverse student populations. They have maximized their autonomy to create schools free of segregation and special day classes where students with disabilities are typically served separately from their peers without disabilities.  These schools have become irrefutable proof points that children should not ever be segregated in school or anywhere in life. Why would we continue to needlessly segregate so many students in K-12 education, the training ground for community and life, when so many California charter schools are demonstrating that a different approach is possible and even more effective?

The Hallmarks of Charter School Progress on Inclusive Education

The following structural components have allowed charter schools to blaze trails in inclusive instructional approaches and school models.

  • Over the past 10 years, it is clear that the flexibility and autonomy offered to charter schools in all areas, including their programs for students with disabilities, has resulted in increased academic outcomes.  Many such schools are grounded in the tenets of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
  • A commitment to making settings where teachers are supported and classes are structured to meet the needs of every child results in all students, not just students with disabilities, learning valuable life lessons.
  • Charter Schools have demonstrated innovative practices for all students, including students with disabilities.  While Charter schools are still learning, there are some key elements that appear to consistently contribute to these successes:
    • Statutory and regulatory changes that allow for a continuum of legal status options for charter schools in how they serve and are funded to serve students with disabilities. California has a continuum of options for the special ed legal status of a charter school. This continuum ranges from full autonomy as an LEA member of a SELPA, to a partnership with their local authorizer when it comes to special ed funding, governance and service delivery.  
    • Accountability that remains at the core of the charter sector, including achievement and outcomes for students with disabilities. 
    • Regulatory approaches that ensure compliance while affording charter schools the agility needed to pivot quickly to be responsive to the needs of changing student populations.
    • Leadership that is dedicated to the success of all students and employs Universal Design for Learning and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) designed to meet the needs of every student.      

The Conversation Begins to Shift in California

Inspired in part by progress being made by groundbreaking charter schools, the State of California, has begun investing in infrastructure to support inclusive teaching practices and accelerate the strides that are being made toward serving students in inclusive settings.  An example of the level of commitment that California is now dedicating to this priority can be seen through the expression of the Supporting Inclusive Practices Project …

… a state funded project led by two California county offices tasked with providing vision and technical assistance to districts and schools and increase inclusive instructional opportunities for students across the state.

While we know that students with disabilities perform better when served in general ed settings, there are many structural barriers that contribute to the slow growth of inclusive practices.  At the forefront is the lack of overall funding and flexibility in the existing California state funding system to allow for the level of support necessary to achieve greater inclusion, particularly for students with extensive support needs. Fortunately, though, we are beginning to see the state investigate alternatives to the current funding model in the interest of increasing inclusion. You can read more about the initiative here:

One of the greatest barriers to educating students in more inclusive settings in California is the lack of a funding formula with the flexibility to provide more funding for students with greater needs. In 1998, California began providing funding based on overall student enrollment. While this funding model has succeeded in its original goal of eliminating incentives to over-identify students with disabilities, recent demographic changes and other factors have resulted in significant strain on this model. As noted in a February 2018 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office …

… special education per-student expenditures have risen far faster than funding. Since 2005, the percentage of students with disabilities statewide has risen 11%, far outpacing the 1.3% growth in the total number of students in the state. As a result, growth in special education expenditures has far outpaced increases in revenue. Additionally, over the last decade, the number of students with more mild disabilities has declined, while the number of students with more extensive support needs has risen sharply. Because it does not take into account the actual number of students with disabilities, the severity of student needs, or the true costs of educating these students, the current funding model has been unable to respond to these demographic shifts and to schools’ and students’ changing needs.

Taking into account the progress that has been demonstrated by California’s charter schools, there is now real traction at a state level for broad funding and regulatory reform. As such, we see that charter schools in California are fulfilling one of their original purposes, which is to model innovations that inspire policy makers to push for reforms that ultimately benefit all schools and all students.

National Movement to Increase the Number of Students Served in Inclusive Settings

Meanwhile, at a national level, we are beginning to see real movement toward a broader embrace of inclusive instructional approaches as well. As we learned in California, it starts with regulatory breakthroughs, which then leads to the establishment of compelling proof points. Charter schools implementing highly respected inclusion models are beginning to spread across the nation.

From Blackstone Valley Prep in Providence, Rhode Island …

… to Strive Prep in Denver, Colorado …

… to Cambridge Community Charter School in Cambridge, Massachusetts …

… charter schools are demonstrating the possible regarding more inclusive instructional approaches for students with disabilities. That progress is beginning to change the discussion in their respective states much as has happened in California.

I am greatly encouraged to see charter schools demonstrating what is possible in inclusive education in many states across the nation. Now is the time to double-down on this effort and accelerate the progress we are making as a nation toward serving all students in more inclusive settings. As such, I encourage all charter school operators and advocates to work together to make charter schools’ fourth decade a time when equity is realized for students with disabilities and inclusive education is understood to be a lasting hallmark of the national charter school movement. In so doing, we will speed the day when all students in our country have access to the more inclusive instructional approaches and learning environments they deserve and are entitled to.