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Volume 29, Number 1
January/February 2013

Making Charter Schools More Inclusive

Experts debate how to increase enrollments of special education students


Director of intervention services, Elizabeth Marcell, works with a student at a ReNEW charter school in New Orleans.

Two years ago, Elizabeth Marcell, the director of intervention services at ReNEW Schools in New Orleans, faced an unenviable challenge. As the charter network worked to open its first two schools in the city, she saw that every special education file she inherited from the schools the network took over failed to comply fully with federal and state laws. Marcell, who wrote her dissertation on charters and special education, knew she had to act quickly. Some people in the charter world “don’t understand they are legally obligated to serve students with disabilities,” Marcell says. “But I don’t think ignorance is going to be a viable answer for much longer.”

As charter schools transition from a fringe alternative to a mainstream option in many communities, special education is emerging as their Achilles’ heel. Over the last few years, numerous reports have shown that most charters do not enroll as large a proportion of disabled children as do their traditional school counterparts. The gaps are particularly wide when it comes to students with the most challenging needs, such as multiple disabilities and severe autism, who cost much more to educate.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

For Further Information

For Further Information

Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2012.

R. Garda. “Culture Clash: Special Education in Charter Schools.” North Carolina Law Review 90, no. 3 (2011).

R. Lake and B. Gross. Special Needs and Choice Districts. Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2011.

E. Marcell. “Choice, Charter Schools, and Students with Disabilities: Special Education Enrollment in Post-Katrina New Orleans Charter Schools.” Ed.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 2010.

C. Wilkens. “Students with Disabilities in Urban Massachusetts Charter Schools: Access to Regular Classrooms.” Disability Studies Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2011).