Opinion
Special Education Commentary

Do Charter Schools Serve Special-Needs Students?

By Robin Lake & Alex Medler — April 02, 2013 4 min read

Policymakers rightly want to know whether charter schools serve their fair share of students with disabilities. The fairest answer may surprise some people, however. In some cases, charter schools serve the same number of special-needs students as their regular public school peers; in others, as many have charged, charters serve fewer of these students.

Certainly, there are elements of special education in the charter school sector that are problematic, but our organizations’ recent analysis of New York state’s special education enrollment illustrates why these challenges require a more sophisticated approach.

As many people expected, a June 2012 Government Accountability Office report showed that charter schools nationally are serving fewer students with disabilities than traditional district-run schools. However, a later analysis of data from New York state, conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (where Robin serves as the director) and commissioned by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (Alex’s organization), casts serious doubt on whether national, or even statewide, averages are the right numbers to guide policy.

In the CRPE study, which was released in November, the researchers found that in New York (as in many other states) charter schools overall serve fewer students with special needs than regular district schools. In the average charter school in New York, about 14 percent of students have disabilities. In the average district-run school, it’s 18 percent.

CRPE then explored whether this trend holds at different grade levels, in different parts of the state, and under different authorizers. The results showed a much more complex picture, one that casts doubt on one-size-fits-all policy solutions like quotas or enrollment targets.

Any state-level uniform enrollment target is too simple a solution for the complex problems associated with special education enrollments and equal access.”

At the middle and high school levels, for example, charter schools enroll students with special needs at rates almost identical to district schools’. It would be hard to argue that there is any systematic discrimination or exclusion occurring in these schools.

CRPE also found that, like district-run schools, charter schools in New York enroll both low and high numbers of students with special needs. About half the district schools in New York are serving a higher-than-average percentage of such students, while the other half serve a lower-than-average percentage. Like other public schools, charters offer a diverse array of supports, programs, and approaches—some of which may be more attractive to families with special needs.

But for some reason, the same pattern does not hold with charter elementary schools, which serve a lower overall percentage of students with disabilities. This is particularly noteworthy because most of New York’s charter schools serve elementary grades. The fact that only charter elementary schools systematically enroll lower proportions of students with disabilities than their district-run counterparts calls into question whether discrimination drives that lower enrollment. We found no obvious reason to think that charter elementary leaders would be more likely to discriminate than charter middle and high school leaders.

More research could eventually identify possible factors contributing to this pattern. With better knowledge, we could design solutions focused on what is actually going on. Are charter schools at lower grades less inclined to label kids as having a disability? Or are kids in charter schools less likely to need an individualized educational program (the federally mandated education plan for students identified as having a disability) because of early intervention? Or are specialized preschool programs and counseling services more likely to send students to designated feeder schools in districts? There are a number of possible explanations.

Above all, our organizations’ findings show that any state-level uniform enrollment target is too simple a solution for the complex problems associated with special education enrollments and equal access. If a state implemented a single target enrollment for all schools, more than half of charter and district-run public schools would fail to meet the enrollment target. A natural—and undesirable—response from these schools would be to designate more of their students as needing special education services.

There are certainly bad actors in both the charter and district sectors who discourage students with disabilities from applying to schools or who fail to serve their needs once enrolled. However, our findings suggest that trying to address discriminatory practices through a single policy instrument, based on a simplistic diagnosis of what is going wrong, is not the cure.

Instead, policymakers should invest in research to identify where underenrollment of students with disabilities exists in charter schools. They should work with the charter school community, as well as stakeholders in the traditional system, to develop innovative strategies to address specific problems.

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2013 edition of Education Week as Do Charter Schools Serve Special-Needs Students? The Answer Is Complicated

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