One of the earliest criticisms leveled at charter schools in the movement’s early days was that the new schools would be “islands” to which affluent students could escape, leaving behind the poor, the at-risk, and children with special needs. While the subsequent growth of the charter school movement has rendered many of those claims untrue, on the issue of special needs children, the critics have a point. (See Walton Family Foundation: Grants for Charter Schools)
Many national studies of charter schools have found that charter schools serve smaller proportions of disabled and other children requiring special education services, compared to traditional public schools. The Walton Family Foundation, a leading funder of charter schools across the country, has challenged the charter school movement to address the special education enrollment gap. Recently, Walton provided a grant to a new organization, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS). The center hopes to remove barriers impeding the enrollment and serving of special needs children in charter schools.
NCSECS noted on its website that charter schools not only enroll fewer special education students than their traditional public school counterparts, they also have not invested sufficient resources to develop the kinds of programs that meet the educational needs of these students. This underserved population, coupled with the lack of investment in programs to meet their educational needs, represents opportunity for individual charter schools, charter networks, and charter management organizations.
Further, the Walton Foundation's grant to this new center indicates a recognition by one of the nation's leading supporters of the charter school movement that the underserving of special education students is a problem that needs to be addressed. In one year, Walton provided more than $160 million in grants for K-12 education reform, with a large slice of that total going to charter schools and charter advocates. Charter organizations who are serious about expanding their services to accommodate the needs of special education children may find a receptive audience at Walton. However, the Walton Family Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals except from charter school developers through its Public Charter Startup Grant Program.