Special Education

Charters Still Serve Fewer Special Ed. Students, but are More Inclusive

By Arianna Prothero — November 10, 2015 3 min read
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Charter schools are often criticized for serving smaller proportions of students with disabilities than regular district schools, and a new analysis of national data finds that’s still the case.

However, not only is the gap between the two types of schools closing, charters also serve more students in an inclusive setting than their district counterparts, according to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

Those were among several findings in NCSECS’ analysis of data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education for its 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection, the most recent year the data was collected and the first time all schools in the country were included in the data set. In its analysis, NCSECS examined a host of other issues, including discipline rates and special education-focused charter schools.

The report adds nuance to a charged debate that has largely been based off of anecdotes, says Lauren Morando Rhim, NCSECS’ executive director.

“Our concern is that so many of those conversations are about people who are fighting a political fight about charters, not kids with disabilities,” Morhando Rhim said. “We want to ground the discussion.”

The Special Education Gap Between Charter and Regular Schools

The NCSECS’ analysis found that 12.55 percent of traditional public school students receive special education, compared to 10.42 percent in charter schools. That gap has shrunk since the 2008-09 school year when a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that students with disabilities made up only 7.7 percent of charter school enrollment nationally, versus 11.3 percent in district schools.

Although fewer students with disabilities attend charters, they are far more likely to spend their school day in general education classrooms. Morando Rhim says this could be for a variety of reasons: Charter schools might be more committed to serving students in an inclusive setting, or charters might not be serving as many students with severe disabilities who require separate settings. It could also come down to more practical concerns.

“If you’re in a huge district, you might pool resources and put all the kids with disability A in this school, but if you’re a single charter school operating as its own district, you can’t do that,” said Morando Rhim. “So you’re going to figure out how to integrate them in their program versus creating a distinct program.”

Discipline and Special Education-Focused Charter Schools

Although charter schools suspend a larger percentage of students overall than district schools, both sectors suspend students with disabilities at about the same rate. In district schools, 13.4 percent of students with disabilities got at least one out-of-school suspension, compared to 13.45 percent in charter schools. Both suspended students with disabilities at a much higher rate than their non-disabled peers.

Much of the same was true when it came to expulsions. Charter schools expelled 0.55 percent of students with disabilities and traditional schools 0.46 percent. Both types of schools expelled students with disabilities more frequently than students without disabilities.

Finally, the NCSECS’ report looked at what it called specialized charter schools, or charters that serve large proportions of students with disabilities. It identified 115 charter schools that fall into this category, most of which were in Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

Up until now, there’s been scant research on these types of schools. Although they’ve been gaining some popularity among parents, special education advocates worry the rise of such charters will push more students into segregated environments.

The NCSECS report lays out policy recommendations for local, state, and federal officials, which you can find here, as well as a detailed explanation of how it analyzed the CRDC numbers.


Photo: Diana Diaz-Harrison, the founder of the Arizona Autism Charter School in Phoenix, talks with a young student at the school, while Sammy, her son, stands alongside her on the playground. —Patrick Breen/EducationWeek-File

Graph from ‘Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: A Secondary Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection 2011-2012' by Lauren Morando Rhim, Jesse Gumz, and Kelly Henderson.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.