Special Education

‘Mystery Parents’ Test Charters’ Enrollment of Spec. Ed., ELL Students

By Arianna Prothero — December 05, 2014 7 min read
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Fielding phone calls from parents asking about enrollment is part of everyday business for schools, but for some charter schools, the person on the other end of the line may only be posing as a parent.

Modeled after “mystery” or “secret shopper” services used in retail, authorizers in the District of Columbia and Massachusetts are using a similar tactic to make sure the charter schools they oversee are not turning away students with more specialized needs, such as children with disabilities or who are still learning English.

This issue has long dogged the charter sector which nationally, some studies show, enrolls a lower percentage of students with disabilities compared to regular public schools. The discrepancy, some charter critics say, comes from the publicly funded but independently run schools turning away such students in order to improve test scores.

“We started this because there was huge a perception among the public that charters counseled out students with disabilities,” said Naomi R. DeVeaux, the deputy director for the District of Columbia’s public charter school board. “We wanted to know if this was true.”

How it Works

The board started its mystery caller program as a pilot in 2012 and then made it official board policy a year later. Staff members call every charter school in the city pretending to be a parent of a student with disabilities.


If the school answers all the questions about the enrollment process correctly, it passes. If the school answers any question inappropriately—for example, if it tells the “parent” that the school across the street is better suited for students with disabilities—the charter board calls back again at a later date. If the school gives a wrong answer twice, it gets a warning. And if it fails to address the problem, its charter could be revoked.

Before calling schools, the charter board’s staff members are handed a scenario and loose script to follow, but are told to come up with a name, age, and current school for their fictional child to customize the script in order to sound more natural. They also use cellphones or a Google Voice account so that the charter board doesn’t pop up on the caller ID of the target school.

“It’s something any authorizer can do and it’s kind of fun,” Ms. DeVeaux said.

And that’s one of the appeals of the mystery-caller program: it’s not a huge resource drain. Calls to the 100 schools that the charter board oversees are split among five staff members. Aside from a cellphone, a script, and the callers themselves, the only other necessary tool is a spreadsheet.

Although the calls are made by a mystery “parent,” the program itself is no secret. The city’s charter schools know the board will be making the calls during the enrollment period in early January. Charter board officials say they’re not trying for “gotcha” moments, but rather teaching moments.

The first year the charter board initiated the program, 10 schools failed. The following year, the number fell to eight, and last year, it dropped further still to two. Those cases, board officials said, had more to do with the schools not understanding the new citywide enrollment system than with anything discriminatory.

For the 2013-14 school year, special education enrollment in the District of Columbia’s charter schools was 12 percent, compared to 14 percent in the city’s traditional public schools.

Growing the Program

The District of Columbia board has been contacted by authorizers from other states asking about the program, including Massachusetts, which started its own pilot version last year.

'Mystery Parents'

The District of Columbia’s charter authorizer uses callers posing as parents to make sure the charter schools it oversees are not turning away special education students.

11 schools gave inappropriate answers in the first round of mystery calls. Of those, 10 failed to respond appropriately in the second round.

16 schools gave inappropriate answers in the first round of calls. Of those, eight failed to respond appropriately in the second round.

17 schools gave inappropriate answers in the first round, and two of those did so in the second round. Those two failed responses were related to the District of Columbia’s new single enrollment system for both charter and district schools.

“It didn’t yield any ‘oh-my-gosh’ moments, so we’re doing it again this year, but more systematically,” said Cliff W. Chuang, associate commissioner with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “There are a lot of stories out there, but not a lot of formal complaints that we can act on.”

But just because parents are not reporting issues to the department, doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, Mr. Chuang said. That was part of the draw in creating the state’s mystery parent program: it can either give the authorizing office data on whether schools are steering certain students away that it couldn’t get before, or help lay rumors to rest.

In addition to asking about enrolling students with disabilities, staff members in Massachusetts’ program also query schools on signing up children who aren’t proficient in English. The low number of English-language learners, or ELLs, enrolled in the state’s charter schools spurred a civil rights complaint in 2011, which claimed at the time students with limited English proficiency made up about 30 percent of Boston’s regular public schools, but only about 3 percent of the city’s charters. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights opened an investigation into the issue, but has yet to release its findings.

“The state passed some laws aimed at trying to remedy that but there’s been some real mixed success,” said Roger L. Rice, a lawyer with Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy, the group that filed the complaint. “Things have gotten better since we filed our complaint. But if you want to look at whether charters are taking proportionate numbers of ELLs, the answer is no.”

Similar to the District of Columbia, the mystery-parent program in Massachusetts is part of a suite of initiatives to boost the overall enrollment of students with special needs in charter schools.

As part of that broader effort, Massachusetts stopped allowing charter schools to roll their waiting lists over from year to year—which effectively locked out students who did not get into a charter or on a waiting list early, which put immigrant students who moved into the area at an older age and higher grade level at a disadvantage, said Mr. Chuang.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia has started an expansive data-analysis initiative to identify potential problem schools, created a specific audit for schools with low special education numbers, and moved to a single enrollment system to make it easier for parents to choose between and enroll in charter and district schools.

The Big Picture

Choosing a school is often a trickier proposition for parents of children with special needs, and removing barriers to enrollment is especially important in attracting them to the sector, said Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director with the New York-based National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

“They’re worried about more things. More factors go into the decision,” she said. “If I’m a parent with a child that doesn’t have a disability, I might just look at test scores.”

Multiple studies show that charter schools serve a smaller share of students with disabilities than regular public schools. Several reasons are floated to explain why: charter schools counsel students out; public schools over-identify students with disabilities; or for whatever reason, parents choose not to enroll their students in charters.

One of the early major reports documenting the discrepancy in special education enrollment numbers between charters and district schools nationwide was a 2012 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. Pulling data from the 2009-10 school year, the report found that, nationally, eight percent of students enrolled in charter schools had a disability compared to 11 percent in regular public schools.

Not only are the reasons behind the discrepancy tough to nail down, so are the numbers.

“If you were to say 50 percent of the population is men, and 50 [percent is] women, you know what the right number is,” said Ms. Rhim. “But when it comes to special education, we don’t know what the right number is because there’s subjectivity in how we identify students.”

If the benchmark is the regular public school enrollment, that can be a moving target as there are variations in the percentage of students with disabilities from state to state. 
But the number of students with special needs in charter schools may be inching upwards as the charter sector matures. The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools has been analyzing numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. This is the first time the CRDC has pulled numbers from all traditional public schools as well as charters.

According to the center, about 10.4 percent of charter school students have special needs, compared to about 12.5 percent in the traditional schools. But, Ms. Rhim said, there’s still room for improvement, and she thinks the secret shopper-like programs in the District of Columbia and Massachusetts are an efficient way to help authorizers make sure the schools they oversee are following the law.

“It’s low tech, it’s immediate, it’s actionable, you can’t say those numbers are off, no, we called your school and you directed us away,” said Ms. Rhim. “This is the frontline for parents.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Charters’ Enrollment Practices Put to Test by ‘Mystery’ Callers


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