Some Charter Schools, Districts Still Wrangle Over Special Education Delivery

Oct 19, 2015

Joanne Dexter teaches special education at Surry Village Charter School.
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

  As charter schools continue to expand in New Hampshire, one thing is clear – how to deal with special education is a big sticking point.

  At Surry Village Charter School, students are just arriving for the day.

Surry is just outside of Keene, and the school here opened in 2006.

The school is in an old elementary school building once used by the town, and in a cramped room, I find teacher Joanne Dexter.

“Space is an issue, you can see that. We seem to get around it, but it’s hard,” Dexter says.

There’s barely room for the table, but for Dexter, it’s where she works with the school’s special education students.

The walls are covered in book with lessons aimed at improving reading skills.

“In a half-hour time, I can accomplish a lot with a kid because it’s so small and such intensive instruction,” she says.

When she’s not working with students, Dexter also spends time communicating with their home school districts.

When a special education student enrolls in a charter school in New Hampshire, it’s the district where the child lives that’s responsible for implementing – and paying for – the services.

Surry Village Charter School Matora Fiorey
Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

“Whenever there’s money involved, it’s difficult,” says Surry Village Charter School Principal Matora Fiorey. “It can be a source of tension and so we just talk it through.”

Fiorey says it isn’t always easy working with local school districts when it comes to special education issues.

“There’s that point where they’re like that’s money that our district could use. But once they’re able to get past that and see this is what the parents really want, this is what the kiddo really wants, let’s support them the best that we can.”

But things don’t go so smoothly everywhere.

State explores the issue

Beth McClure is principal of Strong Foundations Charter School in Pembroke. She’s on a state commission exploring the issue of special education in charter schools.

“There are still repeated cases of districts refusing to provide services to students if the students are attending a charter. That’s still happening.

The commission was created in response to concerns about conflict between school districts and charter schools when it comes to special education.

At meeting last month, McClure says some principals still find school districts are looking for ways to avoid paying for special education.

 “Some school districts have been overtly hostile to charter representatives and parents. Three schools report multiple cases of districts offering to provide necessary services only if the student returns to the district school.”

This arrangement New Hampshire has created is unique.

In other states, charter schools are often their own entity, and receive federal and state funding needed to pay for and provide special education.

Lauren Rihm chairs the board of trustees for Ledyard Charter School in Lebanon.

Special education students by charter school, as of Aug. 25, 2015.
Credit Sara Plourde/Source: NH Department of Education

She’s also a national expert on the issue, and says in other cases, charter schools are part of a larger school district, and have their special education needs met that way.

“In New Hampshire, you’ve got a hybrid. You’ve got charters, wholly autonomous from the local district, with the exception of special ed,” Rihm said. “Because given how charters are funded, it’s not realistic to think that charters, with $5,400, could provide and fulfill the obligations outlined under IDEA.”

New Hampshire’s average per pupil cost is about $14,000, but students with individualized education plans, or IEPS, can run double or triple that or even more, depending on the plan.

There are roughly 250 special education students enrolled in the state’s 25 charter schools this year, or about 10 percent of the overall enrollment.

Not a huge number, but school district officials say there are still problems.

If you look at it from economies of scale, every time a charter school child leaves the district, it always costs us additional funds.

Jean Parsons is director of student services for the Newmarket School District, where roughly a dozen special education students attend a local charter school.

“When the child’s in a charter school, we can’t drop a service that we’re already offering in a public school that the child would have been a group member of. Now we have to create another service outside of the district. So if you look at it from economies of scale, every time a charter school child leaves the district, it always costs us additional funds. I had one where the cost was $30,000 for the child, and that didn't include any transportation."

School districts can provide services at the charter school or require the student come back to the neighborhood school for part of the day.

But districts are also on the hook for any transportation costs.

Parsons says most students are getting a quality education at charter schools, but the added cost can be a big issue.

For their part, charter schools say they’re just working with the arrangement established by the state.

Back at Surry Village Charter School, Principal Matora Fiorey says she understands where cash-strapped school districts are coming from.

“And we just try and be really sensitive to the fact that it is money and they are going to have to write that check out of the budget. But it is for a really good reason and as far as the whole state is concerned, it’s an efficient way to do it.”

Parents caught in the middle

Christina D’Allesandro’s son attends Birches Academy Charter School in Salem. She’s also a member of the state commission exploring this issue.

Christina, can you describe what type of disability your son has?

My son has an underlying genetic condition called Mosaic Trisomy 22, and that manifests itself with having multiple right-sided abnormalities, but his basic significant educational disability is hearing loss. He has no ear on the right side and no hearing on the right side. As a result of his disability, he also has right-sided weakness, so his fine motor skills are not where they should be.

Christina D'Allesandro with her son, Antony.
Credit Courtesy photo

Why did you choose to take part in the commission that’s looking at special ed in charter schools?

Well, one of the real critical things for me has been although our relationship is really good, I have heard from other parents there are times where relationships are challenged, where it doesn’t work together as well as it should. Also, personally, I’ve always had a big interest in ensuring that the quality of services delivered is absolutely where it should be.

It is clear there’s some tension between school districts and charter schools when it comes to special education. Why do you think that is?

You know, I think it can be difficult and I think it really looks to the particular needs of the child. My IEP for Antony, is fairly straightforward. We have specific services that need to be dropped in. When the IEP is more multi-layered, maybe it requires other components of having a room or a space a child can go to, it can be harder to work that out in a nontraditional education space. I don’t think these are insurmountable obstacles, I just think we have to be creative and share the strategies that work and we can get the kids the services they require, wherever the parents choose to have them educated.

Sharing those shared models would be great, and how to implement them. I think the state could do a great job in better facilitating what those models look like and giving guidance.

What can the state do and what kind of changes would you like to see implemented?

I think personally, a lot of it is down to communication and sharing of experiences that work. I know at our school, there’s the use of some shared resources. We have someone who works with kids with learning disabilities in our school that is shared across multiple districts. That way, the school can be involved, but the districts can feel they have ownership. So I think sharing those shared models would be great, and how to implement them. I think the state could do a great job in better facilitating what those models look like and giving guidance.