New study on how charter schools serve students with disabilities

May 14, 2013 | Blog

A recent report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) sheds new light on the findings on a June 2012 Government Accountability Office study that found that nationally charter schools serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. CRPE’s study suggests that much more nuance is needed in looking at how charter schools serve students with disabilities.

CRPE’s study looked specifically at New York state’s special education enrollment.  As Robin Lake, Director of CRPE, and Alex Medler, Vice President of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, write in their recent article in Education Week, “The [study’s] 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.”

The study found that rates of special education students served at the middle and high school levels do not vary between charter and traditional schools. It also shows that there is great variation in the number of special education students served on a school-by-school basis, regardless of whether or not it is a traditional or charter school. Schools, whether charter or traditional, may attract a certain population of students based on their reputation and track record with those students, say Lake and Medler.

However, the researchers did find that elementary charter schools do serve an overall lower percentage of students with disabilities, though they “found no obvious reason to think that charter elementary leaders would be more likely to discriminate than charter middle and high school leaders.”

Lake and Medler suggest further research is necessary to fully understand the difference at the elementary school level, though they offer some hypotheses. For example, they ask, “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?”

Their overall conclusion, however, is that the national data is too broad and not nuanced enough to give charter school policymakers a clear view of how charters schools serve students with special needs. Instead, they suggest looking at individual schools more closely to determine the cause of underenrollement of special education students, as well as working with the community to address the needs of students with special needs attending all schools, charter or traditional.

Read the full article in Education Week.