Thursday, May 21, 2009 | Ten local charter schools want to turn to an office more than 500 miles away in El Dorado County to help them educate children with disabilities using the schools’ own staff and strategies, instead of paying San Diego Unified to help meet those needs.
If approved, it will be a groundbreaking step for the charters, which already enjoy freedom over hiring, policies and curriculum but have traditionally been bound to the district when educating kids with Down Syndrome, attention deficit disorder or other disabilities. Their hope is that turning away from the school district will empower them to manage their own special education programs and provide a less expensive, more effective alternative than paying skyrocketing fees to the school district.
Under school district control, special education “is a whole component of your program that you don’t even own and operate,” said Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. “That is completely antithetical to what the charter school movement is all about.”
El Dorado plans to charge the schools much less than they were charged by San Diego Unified, but the charters will also become responsible for providing services and staffers that were previously outsourced to the school district, which had assigned special education staffers to the charter schools and ran the programs. Charter advocates say it has already worked at the High Tech High schools, which partner with an agency in San Bernardino County for special education. It is a classic tradeoff for charter schools — more autonomy for more responsibility — and it is loaded with both opportunities and risks.
“Now school districts and counties throughout the state can’t hold them hostage — if that isn’t too strong of a term — when they have an opportunity to look for other options,” said Vicki Barber, El Dorado County Superintendent of Schools, whose office would oversee the charters’ special education programs.
But the trend is worrisome to advocates who question how accountable the schools can be from afar, especially when charter schools are already criticized for serving fewer students with disabilities than other public schools. Some worry that sending the money directly to schools to spend on special education, instead of providing special education services for a blanket fee that is not related to actual costs, could incentivize charters to cut back on their services to save money.