Think-tank study finds little evidence charters exclude disabled students

Think-tank study finds little evidence charters exclude disabled students

New research casts doubt on long-held criticism of charter schools that they systematically exclude too many students with disabilities through admission or other academic policies.

A report out this month from the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the right-leaning Manhattan Institute suggests that the enrollment gap between charters and traditional schools for students with disabilities is probably more the result of subjective parental choice than any other factor.

The research found little evidence that charter schools refuse to admit disabled students or force them out for failing to meet performance standards. A recent 20 percent growth in the special education enrollment gap, the study's author said, can also be attributed to a great proportion of general education students entering charter schools rather than a drop in the number of students with disabilities being served at charters.

The study's author, Marcus A. Winters - a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs - noted that the study was limited to 25 specific schools in New York City and cannot be assumed to have broader implications. But because of the unique nature of the report, the findings add some important new information for policy-makers to consider.

These results suggest that recent attempts to address the special education gap through legislated special education enrollment targets for charter schools are unlikely to yield meaningful results and could prove harmful to students," Winters said. "Regulations requiring charter schools to meet certain thresholds for the percentage of their students in special education could have the impact of forcing charter schools to push for a disability diagnosis for students who otherwise would have avoided the designation. Charter schools should be encouraged to recruit such students. However, it is difficult to hold them accountable for the free choice of individuals deciding whether or not to apply to the charter sector."

The issue has been one that has dogged the charter school movement for years and provoked both litigation and regulation.

A 2012 report from the General Accounting Office found approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools during the 2009-10 school year.

Previous analysis of enrollment in New York City found similar differences: 14.3 percent in charters versus 18.2 percent in traditional schools.

Although the numbers raised suspicions that charters were too often turning disabled students away, neither of the prior studies looked at why the gap existed.

Winters said still more study is needed but his report gave some new insights. For one, he found that more students with previously identified disabilities enter charter schools than exit them as they progressed from kindergarten through elementary school. This would support the notion that the gap in enrollment is being driven by more general education students joining charter schools than students with disabilities leaving them.

He also found the most substantial growth in the special education gap is generated by the least severe category but the largest overall - specific learning disability.

"Rates of classification in what might be considered the more severe (and less subjective) categories of special education - autism, speech or language impairment, or intellectual disability - remain quite similar in charter and traditional public schools over time," Winters said.

A significant portion of the special education gap, he said, takes place when a student enters kindergarten and parents of disabled children - especially those with autism and speech or language impairment - are simply less likely to choose a charter school.

Winters said the reason may vary - such as enrollment in a specialized pre-school program that may feed a district elementary, or an evaluation that a charter isn't a good fit for the child.

"We cannot discern the reasons for their parents' choices in a statistical analysis alone, and the issue deserves further study," he concluded.

To read the report click on the link below: more