School Choice & Charters

Where Are Students With Disabilities Going to School?

By Nirvi Shah — September 14, 2012 2 min read
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Well, that depends.

Nationwide, as school choice options have opened up, students without special needs have tended to leave traditional public schools for charter schools or private schools, using vouchers. As this Associated Press story reported recently, for example, the Cleveland school district in Ohio has lost 41 percent of its students since 1996. That’s led the proportion of students with disabilities in the district to shoot up from about 13 percent to 23 percent of overall enrollment.

While many private school voucher programs, like this new one in Ohio, target students with disabilities, there are questions about whether more general private school choice options really are accessible to students with disabilities.

In Milwaukee, the AP reported, overall enrollment has dropped by nearly 19 percent over the past decade, and the percentage of students with disabilities rose from about 16 percent in 2002 to nearly 20 percent this year. The total enrollment in Los Angeles has dropped by 8.5 percent since the 2005-06 school year, but students with disabilities have grown from representing 11 percent of the district’s students to 13 percent.

And a Government Accountability Office report earlier this year pointed out the disparity in charter school enrollment between students with disabilities and their peers.

But this piece from the Houston Chronicle concludes that more students with disabilities in Texas are opting out of public schools, turning to homeschooling or private schools—even if that means paying for them out of pocket.

Overall, the numbers of special education students exiting traditional public schools are still small in this populous state, but they represent an interesting trend.

The number of secondary students who left public schools for homeschooling grew 50 percent from 2003 to 2010, reaching 2,040 7th- through 12th-graders, the Chronicle reported. Those who withdrew for private school increased 75 percent, reaching 772 in 2010.

The small shift coincides with another trend in Texas: a smaller proportion of students are being diagnosed with disabilities each year.

In 2011, 8.8 percent of public school students were identified as having a disability, a drop from 12 percent in 2000, the newspaper reported. That’s left Texas as the state enrolling the lowest percentage of students with disabilities in the country.

While the percentage of students diagnosed with learning disabilities nationwide has been dropping, the Chronicle reported that advocates in Texas worry that the state could be under-diagnosing students to cut costs or circumvent accountability measures.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.