Special Education Opinion

The Special Education Enrollment Gap in Louisiana: Charter Versus Traditional Schools

By Urban Education Contributor — November 15, 2018 6 min read
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This week we are hearing from REL Southwest (@RELSouthwest). This post is by Shannon Lasserre-Cortez, senior research lead at the REL Southwest Louisiana Teacher Preparation and Professional Development Research Partnership.

Why This Research

Students with diagnosed disabilities are entitled to special education services described in an individualized education program (IEP). Serving students with an IEP can be challenging for charter and traditional schools. In Louisiana in 2010-11, 12 percent of enrollees in charter schools had an IEP compared with 14 percent of students in traditional schools. (The national figures were 8.2 percent and 11.2 percent, respectively).

As part of Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest, members of the Louisiana Charter Schools Research Alliance were interested in an updated and extensive examination of the dimensions and possible sources of the special education enrollment gap between charter and traditional schools in Louisiana. Is the gap larger in the earlier or later grades? Does it vary across disability categories? Is it due to a tendency for charter schools to declassify students as no longer requiring an IEP at a higher rate than traditional schools do?

What the Research Examines

In a recent study, we explored the special education enrollment rates in charter schools and traditional schools, as well as factors associated with variations in classification and enrollment rates of students with an IEP. Using descriptive statistics and regression analyses, REL Southwest researchers examined enrollment and classification in special education across school types (elementary, middle, and high school) in the four regions of Louisiana that have three or more charter schools. This study spans four school years, 2010-11 through 2013-14, and includes all K-12 public school students in the study regions.

Specifically, the study examines the following two research questions:

  • How had the enrollment rate of students with an IEP differed between open-enrollment charter schools and traditional schools between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years, overall and by specific educational region?
  • Were special education classification and declassification rates different between charter and traditional schools between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years?

What the Research Finds

  • The special education enrollment gap was 2.5 percentage points (8.5 percent in charter schools and 11 percent in traditional schools) in 2010-11 and declined to 0.5 percentage point (10.2 percent and 10.7 percent, respectively) in 2013-14.
  • For three of the four study years, the special education enrollment gap was largest in schools serving grades K-5; for all four study years, it was smallest in schools serving grades 9-12.
  • By 2013-14, the special education enrollment rate in schools serving grades 9-12 was higher in charter than in traditional schools.
  • The enrollment rate for students with an emotional disturbance was higher in charter than in traditional schools, but the enrollment rate for students with most other categories of disabilities was higher in traditional than in charter schools.
  • Charter school enrollment was associated with an increased likelihood of a student being declassified from requiring an IEP, although less than 1 percent of students with an IEP in both charter and traditional schools were declassified over the study period.
  • Charter school enrollment was not associated with the likelihood of being newly classified as requiring an IEP.

Implications for Practice

Closing the enrollment gap between charter and traditional schools is possible. Since charter schools were introduced in 1995 in Louisiana, there have been gaps between traditional and charter schools’ enrollment of students with IEPs. Shortly after the release of this report, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) found that nationwide enrollment in charter schools among students with disabilities has increased since 2009-10, while traditional school enrollment of such students slightly increased and then remained stable.

Students with disabilities may be underidentified in some regions of the state. Despite the closing of gaps, Louisiana special education enrollment in these four regions lags behind national and state averages for traditional school enrollment and behind national averages for charter schools, suggesting that some students with disabilities may be underidentified regardless of school type. In fact, enrollment for students with disabilities in traditional schools in the study declined from 11 percent to 10.7 percent while the state average remained at 12.5 percent.

Graph: REL Southwest; data sources: Rhim & Kothari, 2018 & Wolf & Lasserre-Cortez, 2018

Extent of enrollment and gaps may depend on school type and location. Inequitable access to special education among the regions for traditional and charter schools suggests lack of consistent implementation of special education procedures. Nationally, charter schools that are their own local education agency (LEA) enroll a greater proportion of students with disabilities (11.5 percent) compared with charters that are part of an LEA (9.7 percent). Seventy percent of Louisiana charter schools are part of an LEA.

Charter schools may offer students with an emotional disturbance increased opportunities for school success. On average, 62 percent of students with IEPs spend 80 percent or more of the day in regular class, while only 47.1 percent of students with an emotional disturbance are placed in such environments. Students with an emotional disturbance (17 percent) also are more likely than students with other disabilities (5.2 percent) to be educated in alternative learning environments outside the regular classroom. Charter schools, on average, offer students with disabilities, including students with an emotional disturbance, greater access to the general education classroom and reduced expulsion.

Although charter schools can offer more appropriate learning environments for some students with an emotional disturbance, there is no magic bullet that guarantees they will. Higher enrollment of this population may be because parents of students with an emotional disturbance assume that charter schools will offer better opportunities. Charter schools must be equipped to address the unique needs of this population of learners. This will require access to school counselors, psychologists, and, potentially, community-wraparound services.

Closing the gap is important, but ensuring access to quality services is equally important. The most recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2004 expanded its role to focus more on results-driven accountability. Although investigating the quality or impact of special education services was beyond the scope of the study, it must be considered in conversations related to gaps and enrollment. Otherwise, states and regions may incorrectly focus their technical assistance on moving enrollment numbers while inadvertently ignoring indicators of success. For example, it is possible that a specific charter or traditional school could have lower percentages of special education enrollment because its school model reduces the necessity for some children to require special education services.

Previous blog posts from REL Southwest:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

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