Centre de recherche interuniversitaire sur la formation et la profession enseignante (CRIFPE)

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McKittrick, L., Lake, R., Tuchman, S., Pillow, T., Vallant, J. & Larsen, M. (2020). Finding a Great Fit : Improving the School Choice Process for Students with Disabilities. Seattle, WA, USA : Center on Reinventing Public Education.


Families with children with disabilities must constantly work to advocate for their children, find the school that provides the best fit, and assess whether educators are providing the right interventions. This can be exhausting and frustrating, especially when it comes on top of the unique demands of parenting a child with a disability. Add to that the reality of living in poverty—perhaps as a recent immigrant or with a limited education—and the challenges of guiding a child with disabilities through the education system can begin to feel overwhelming. We wanted to learn how parents, including those in the circumstances described above, manage the school choice process, and how they can be better supported to advocate for their children and choose the best educational opportunities. Public school choice, whether it comes in the form of charter schools, alternative programs in district schools, or other forms, increases the options and opportunities for such families to find a good fit. But it also creates new challenges as families must sort through their options and manage the process of applying to schools, all while still working to ensure their children have access to the services, supports, and challenging education to which they are entitled. In a previous study, one parent of a child with a disability told us why they chose a charter school: “The advocacy never stops, but it’s always better to have options.” Two cities, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., exemplify both these opportunities and challenges. New Orleans has over the last 15 years become an all-choice system. Every public school in the city is now operated by a nonprofit serving as a charter management organization under a performance-based charter contract with the local school board, which provides oversight and support. Each individual school is subject to the same special education obligations under federal law as a traditional school district, such as providing a full continuum of placement options and ensuring appropriate specialized and trained staff. In Washington, D.C., public charter schools comprise about half of the city’s public schools, and each charter network, like the district, is responsible for complying with federal special education laws. Because they are designated as local education agencies (LEA) under state law, each individual charter school is subject to the same special education obligations under federal law as a traditional school district: they must meet the needs of every enrolled student in the least restrictive environment possible, whether or not they have existing staff or program specializations in place. This creates a critical tension for charter schools in both cities. On one hand, they are expected to be more focused, outcomes oriented, and mission driven than school districts. On the other hand, they are expected to offer a broad range of programs and staffing expertise that districts typically offer through a combination of programs and specializations across a number of schools. Although both cities have shown considerable academic improvement as choices have expanded, and while overcoming histories of dismal performance and corruption, they continue to strive for improved outcomes for students with disabilities. And both cities are known for thoughtful government oversight: neither city presumes to have improved special education so it functions well for every student. Both have struggled for decades to meet federal mandates and consent decrees for their district and charter schools, and have worked to increase quality special education options and to address issues of information and access, especially for families from low-income households. We set out to study these two cities in order to identify ways they can continue to maximize opportunities and minimize challenges for families with children with disabilities—especially to help both communities improve their enrollment and information-sharing processes, with the understanding that a process is only as good as the choices available. Thus, we recognize that this work is an initial step and that the gateway to a choice system cannot be perfected as a process until families have meaningful choice as illustrated by a diversity of strong special education programs. While school governance in both of these cities is fairly unique compared to other school systems around the country, we believe their experience can inform other cities’ efforts to expand educational opportunities and improve the experience for families with children with disabilities. 


Logos des universités associées au CRIFPE

Adresse civique

Université de Montréal
Faculté des Sciences de l'Éducation
90, avenue Vincent d'Indy
Pavillon Marie-Victorin – C-536
Outremont (Québec) H2V 2S9

Adresse postale

Université de Montréal
Faculté des Sciences de l'Éducation
CRIFPE – C-543
C.P. 6128, succursale Centre-ville
Montréal (Québec) H3C 3J7