Education Next asks: should there be special needs enrollment quotas for charter schools?

Patrick R. Gibbons

Should charter schools be required to educate an identical proportion of special needs students as public schools? Should charters be required to follow the same rules governing special needs students as public schools?

Last month the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released a memo that said yes to these questions. Education Next reached out to three education experts – Robin Lake, Gary Miron and Pedro Noguera – to get their take on the issue.


Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothel, says charters should not “counsel out” special needs students by recommending they attend other schools, but she opposes new regulations or enrollment quotas.

Lake recognizes that some charter schools specialize in special education while others focus on different academic pursuits. As a result, some charters serve only special needs students and others serve none at all. The same is true for public schools, she says, and that means a quota system would result in forcing kids out of schools that may work well for them just to achieve a proportional balance.

Lake says cities should focus on resources, not quotas. She concludes:

“Cities need to stop talking about what’s the ‘fair share’ through the lens of a charter or a district, consider instead what students need, and leverage the right combination of resources to meet that need.”


Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University and fellow at the National Education Policy Center, disagrees. Miron is reasonably concerned that charters could serve too few special needs students resulting in a greater financial burden for public schools. Unlike Lake, he is less concerned about specialized education models and more concerned with uniformity. In fact, he singles out college-prep academies as a contributor to the disparity between public and charter special needs enrollments.

To Miron, enrollment quotas would be a fair solution. He argues that:

 “It’s time to expect charter schools to live up to the premise under which they were established, as alternatives within the public school system, by requiring them to recruit from all segments of the community, including the special education population.”

Miron’s preference still leaves the debate open as to whether schools meant to serve all students can actually serve all students equally well.


Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University, agrees more with Robin Lake than Gary Miron. Noguera finds that special needs and “high needs” students are more likely to be concentrated in schools together. This occurs, he argues, because both public and charter schools have the capability of avoiding special needs and high needs student populations.

Despite this evidence, Noguera is against imposing further regulations such as enrollment quotas. Instead, he wants to ensure that charters and traditional schools have adequate resources – including appropriately trained teachers – to meet the needs of these students.

Noguera states:

 “The issues involving special education students are complex and cannot be addressed through simplistic policies that pit charter schools against public schools.”

Noguera and Lake are correct to avoid the public vs. charter school debate. Though not expressly stated, the real issue at hand orbits around dueling policy preferences – regulation and uniformity vs. innovation and specialization. Do we require one-size-fits all education or allow different models, methods and means to flourish? Can these two philosophies even co-exist?

Education Next’s latest publication covers just a sliver of this debate but it is worth a read.

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