Good afternoon, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee. My name is Shannon Hodge, and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that every student can choose high-quality public schools that prepare them for lifelong success.
On behalf of the DC charter school community, I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today about what charter schools are doing to support students with disabilities. Today, you’ll also hear from school leaders on strategies and best practices they’ve undertaken to support students who receive special education services, and what additional support they need to effectively serve these students.
As you know, we’ve all had a difficult couple of years thanks to the ongoing pandemic. The needs of students with disabilities have been even more exacerbated during this time, particularly because not being inside school buildings for a significant portion of the last couple of years has likely had significant effects on the services they receive. We know from talking with school leaders that teachers and support staff have been forced to pivot and be creative, and that students and their families have shown a lot of grace and patience in return.
At the DC Charter School Alliance, we have been regularly connecting with members of the special education support and advocacy communities to make sure we understand how we can best assist schools as they continue working incredibly hard to support students with disabilities and their families.
Challenges Raised by Charter School Leaders
We’ve also been regularly connecting with our schools to hear more about the challenges they are facing in providing services for students with disabilities. One of the most consistent problems LEAs are facing is having adequate special education staff. Even before the pandemic, staffing special education services was a challenge, but COVID-19 has exacerbated staffing issues. Now, more than ever, charter schools need more qualified special educators.
A second challenge charter schools face are with the vendors and contractors they work with. Often, these outside service providers don’t have the capacity needed to really support the needs of our schools’ students with disabilities. That lack of capacity has required additional creativity and innovation from our schools to get needed support and services to their students.
Finally, I want to acknowledge that despite the missed services from staffing and capacity issues, coupled with pandemic difficulties of being virtual for so long, our schools are serious about helping students with disabilities recover those missed services and instruction opportunities. School leaders are exploring creative compensatory services, where appropriate, and other supportive arrangements with students with disabilities and their families.
There are things we can do to better support students with disabilities and address some of the challenges our schools are facing.
To start, we need to recruit and retain more special educators. That means we need to have the funding to pay them what they’re worth. Additionally, in a city that’s becoming more and more difficult to afford housing in, considering financial incentives for educators to live in and/or relocate to the District could be a powerful retention and recruitment tool.
Second, we can and should support students with disabilities by providing special education services for longer than we do right now. That’s why we support expanding eligibility for students with disabilities, allowing access to services for another year beyond what’s currently allowed. Expanding eligibility can help make up for some of the missed services and instructional opportunities lost to the pandemic.
And finally, we must make sure that our schools have the resources they need to fully support students with disabilities. As you know, schools receive additional funding from a special education weight on top of base level funding for each student. That’s why we ask you to support continued, increased, and equitable investments in public education by appropriately increasing the UPSFF foundation level by at least 3.6 percent. This increase will partially close the gap between current funding levels and the recommended levels from the 2013 DC Education Adequacy Study, while keeping up with rising costs in the city. This is critical, because if foundation level funding is not up to par, schools will not receive adequate funding to support students with disabilities.
As I’ve said before this Council many times before, DC’s public charter schools are nimble, responsive, and innovative. Each charter school has a different model to create unique and responsive learning environments for their students so each one can choose a high-quality public school and receive a great public education that prepares them for lifelong success.
But we still have work to do. We know that we all share the same goal—to build a truly equitable system that provides an education for all our students, including our students with disabilities. We at the DC Charter School Alliance are ready to work alongside the Council to ensure we are providing the education our students deserve.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.