SWDs faring better in charters than before, but issues remain

SWDs faring better in charters than before, but issues remain

(N.Y.) Fewer students with disabilities are being suspended or expelled from charter schools than in previous years, according to a report released Tuesday, but advocates say policymakers need to take further steps to ensure equitable treatment.

The report from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools–a non-profit organization that advocates for SWDs enrolled in charter schools–shows that while progress has been made in lowering suspension and expulsion rates, those numbers still almost double those of students without disabilities.

“The data shows that while we’ve made slight improvements and are headed in the right direction, we have a lot of work to do to improve supports and services for students with disabilities in both charter schools and traditional public schools,” Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said in a statement.

“Every student deserves high quality learning opportunities, including students with disabilities,” she said. “We must improve, and that starts by collecting the hard data and using it to inform policies and spark more efficient collaboration between education leaders at the federal, state and local levels.”

Charter schools have long fought against the notion that they systematically exclude too many special education students either through admission, disciplinary or academic policies. Past research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education reported that an enrollment gap between charter and traditional schools among students with disabilities had more to do with parental choice than any other factor. Charter critics suggested that such choices, though, were driven by a lack of support services for SWDs provided by charter schools.

Using the 2013–14 civil rights data–the most recent data published by the federal Office for Civil Rights–the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools found that SWDs make up a little more than 12 percent of traditional public school enrollment, compared to about 11 percent at charter schools.

Researchers found that charters do report higher percentages of enrollment of students with specific learning disabilities—the largest category of students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Those students represent almost half of charter students with disabilities, compared to nearly 46 percent of SWD enrolled in traditional public schools.

Charter schools do, however, report lower percentages of enrollment of students with developmental delays and intellectual impairments than traditional schools. Students with developmental delays represent nearly 1 percent of special education enrollment in charters, compared to more than 2 percent in traditional schools; and children with intellectual impairments make up close to 4 percent of special education enrollment in charters, compared to nearly 6 percent in traditional schools.

Where charter schools are excelling is in ensuring SWDs are served in more inclusive settings. Researchers found that more than 84 percent of students with disabilities in charter schools were educated in the general education classroom for at least 80 percent of the day, compared to 68 percent of those in traditional public schools.

Still, experts note that charters and traditional schools alike have room to improve when it comes to reducing the rates at which SWDs are suspended and expelled.

Suspension rates among SWDs enrolled in charter schools were slightly more than 12 percent–close to double that of the overall student population, at nearly 7 percent. The expulsion rates in charters for students with disabilities versus students without disabilities were 0.39 percent compared to 0.18 percent.

While authors of the report note that more needs to be done to reduce those rates, researchers point out that the rates have dropped slightly. Suspension rates among SWDs in charter schools dropped from about 13.5 percent in 2011-12 to about 12 percent in 2013-14. Expulsion rates declined from about .55 percent in 2011-12 to .2 percent in 2013-14.

Still, researchers noted that charters, like their traditional public school counterparts, still suspend and expel students with disabilities at approximately double the rate of students without disabilities.

To address the issue, authors of the report recommend federal policymakers prioritize and sustain investments that build charter school capacity to serve students with diverse learning needs, and strengthen U.S. Department of Education guidance provided to charter school authorizers and operators to ensure compliance with IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

At the local level, researchers suggest charter schools allocate adequate resources to improve supports and services to students with disabilities, and that charter school authorizers provide general and special education teachers with professional development to better support students with diverse learning needs.