Unpacking the Special Education Story

Unpacking the Special Education Story

Guest Post from Robin Lake, Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington

One of the most pervasive criticisms of charter schools is that they either find ways around accepting or strategically counsel out students with special needs. These criticisms have been fueled both by anecdote and by reports such as the GAO’s 2012 analysis of the percentage of students with disabilities in both sectors, which showed a persistent three to four point gap between charter schools and traditional public schools

This gap—present at both the district and state level—should be concerning to anyone who believes that public schools should be open to all students. The gap sends a message that charter schools do not welcome students with special needs and that authorizers are not meeting their obligation to ensure that charters are admitting and serving all students without regard to their special education status.  Undoubtedly, some charters behave inappropriately. When that happens, authorizers and states should take steps to stop it.  But there is no data to demonstrate the relative contribution of this kind of behavior on the enrollment rates; and, as a study released by CRPE this week demonstrates, there are many other factors that could also be contributing to the gap.  This study, and others following similar lines of inquiry in the future, will help us understand those factors better so that we can do what is best for students with disabilities.

While many districts are working with charter leaders to figure out smart solutions to ensure that students with special needs have equal access to any public school, the knee jerk reaction by some policymakers has been to pass resolutions or quotas to force charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities.

CRPE has been studying this issue for many years to try to bring evidence to bear on these policy debates. We published a book on the topic in 2010, have written several papers, and recently published a thorough analysis of special education enrollment in New York State that was commissioned by NACSA. Earlier his week we released a report by Marcus Winters, of the Manhattan Institute, that casts new light on the dynamics behind special education enrollment in charter schools and what the implications are for policy.

Marcus looked empirically at the factors that might be driving the special education gap in New York City. He tracked enrollment data for individual students over time from kindergarten through 3rd grade and compared the special education enrollment rates of charter lottery “winners” with lottery “losers” wound up at traditional public schools. Because both sets of students applied to charters, this analysis goes a long way toward controlling for differences in the type of child who applies to a charter school. The results are striking:

  • The vast majority (80 percent) of the special education gap is explained by the fact that parents of students with special needs—especially those with autism and or a speech or language disability—are less likely to choose to apply to charter schools in the first place.
  • Once students enroll in charter schools, it looks like much of the gap is described by what charter advocates have long said: that charter schools are less likely to identify a given student as having a disability. The gap after kindergarten occurs mostly among children with emotional and specific learning disabilities. These are the most subjective categories of student disabilities and categories widely recognized to be over-identified among low-performing students.
  • Finally, students with IEPs are highly mobile; about a third leave their school before the end of 4th grade, whether they attend a charter or district school.

Marcus found little evidence that charter schools push students with special needs out the door after they’ve admitted them. In fact, they seem more likely to try to address children’s needs than label them—a practice some district schools could learn from. Of course, statistical analyses have their limits. We don’t know from this study whether charter schools counseled students away from the school during the admission process.  Given this study’s scope, generalizing about the charter sector is inappropriate.  Nevertheless, the study’s findings are valuable and provocative.  Marcus brings light to issues that deserve serious consideration and further study.

One important takeaway from Marcus’s analysis is that the well-documented gap between charter schools and their district counterparts is not necessarily a problem in and of itself. The gap may reflect the effect of parental choice and different strategies for teaching students with special learning needs rather than any deliberate attempts to avoid serving some categories of students.  Quotas or special education enrollment targets may in fact create perverse incentives to get schools to label more kids as disabled than they otherwise would, and authorizers that assume on their face that lower percentages are undesirable may overlook schools with unique strategies for serving our most vulnerable students.

What we need instead, in both charter and district-run schools, are better ways to inform parents about all of their public school options and rights. For example, many kids who are identified with a disability before kindergarten are automatically enrolled in special district programs that feed right from special preschool programs. Parents of these kids may never consider a charter school or may not believe that a small charter school would have the resources to meet their children’s needs. This represents a lost opportunity for charters.

And of course districts and charter authorizers must provide effective oversight to ensure that students with disabilities are effectively served, whether they choose a charter or a traditional public school, and that schools are held accountable for how well they serve all students rather than whether they meet quotas for different categories of students.

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