No. 80 October 2013
Why the Gap? Special Education and
New York City Charter Schools
Marcus A. Winters,
Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
READ FULL REPORT
The truth about charter schools and special education, Marcus A. Winters,
New York Daily News, 10-1-13
IN THE NEWS
Why Charter Schools Have Fewer Disabled Students,
The Heartlander, 10-24-13
The Need for Courageous Reformers, Dropout Nation, 10-10-13
Charters and Special Education, Education Week, 10-9-13
Charter Schools Earn More Than Passing Grade, Editorial,
Why the special ed gap?, JoanneJacobs.com, 10-7-13
Choice and Special Education, Jay P. Greene’s blog, 10-4-13
Charter schools the best hope for escaping special ed, New York Post,
Why Charters Have Fewer Special Ed Students, WNYC.org’s “SchoolBook”,
Morning Education, Politico, 10-1-13
New Study on Students with Disabilities at Charters, Politico Pro, 10-1-13
Report: District-charter special ed gap not from “counseling out”,
Gotham Schools, 10-1-13
New Study: Why the Gap?, The Charter Blog, 9-30-13
New study questions special-education quotas for charters
, Fordham Institute’s Gadfly, 9-30-13
Subterranean Charter School – Spec Ed Blues, Eduwonk, 9-30-13
Why So Few Special Needs Students in N.Y.C.
Charters?, Education Week, 9-30-13
Linked on RealClearPolicy, 9-30-13
Choice Media with Bob Bowdon, 10-14-13
CMN's "The Lars Larson Show," 10-3-13
The significant growth of charter schools in the United
States has brought both praise for the excellent results
achieved by some schools and criticism that charter
schools may not be serving the most disadvantaged
These criticisms are bolstered by the gap in enrollment
rates of special education students between charter
schools and traditional public schools. A Government
Accountability Office (GAO) study put the gap at 3 percent
nationally (8.2 percent at charter schools versus 11.2
percent in traditional public schools). This gap is mirrored
in New York: The Center on Reinventing Public Education
(CRPE) at the University of Washington found a similar
gap in New York State (14.3 percent versus 18.2 percent)
and the New York City Charter School Center reports
that 13.1 percent of city charter school students receive
special education services compared to 16.5 percent in
traditional public schools.
The difference between special education enrollment
rates in traditional public and charter schools is of serious
concern. Such differences provoked a class-action lawsuit
in Louisiana. In response to the seeming disparity in
disability rates across sectors, state lawmakers revised
the New York State Charter Schools Act to require charter
authorizers to set enrollment and attendance targets for
students with disabilities and consider the effort to meet
these targets during renewal proceedings.
To date, however, there has been little research on
why this persistent three to four percent gap in special
education enrollment rates exists. Critics contend that
charters either don’t admit or “push out” low-performing
students, including those requiring special education
services, who must then attend traditional public schools.
Charter leaders assert that they are less likely to identify
a child as needing special education services, preferring
instead to use their autonomy to intervene in the child’s
learning or behavioral needs, so that she or he can
participate fully in the regular classroom environment.
It is also possible that parents of students with special
needs are less likely to choose to attend charter schools.
They may be satisfied with their current schools or may
perceive that certain or all charter schools do not or
cannot serve students with Individualized Education
This study, commissioned by the Center on Reinventing
Public Education, attempts to ascertain why the disparity
in special education rates exists. We use data made
available from the New York City Department of Education
and 25 participating New York City charter elementary
schools to track students who participated in lotteries
and discern whether there is a difference over time in
special education rates between applicants who enrolled
in charters and those who instead enrolled in traditional
We also use data on all elementary-grade students in
New York City public schools to assess the influence
of factors that could contribute to the special education
gap, such as student mobility across sectors and
the probability that a student is newly classified or is
declassified as having a disability.
Our analysis reveals several important findings:
The gap in special education enrollment exists
primarily because students with disabilities—particularly those with autism or who have a speech
or language impairment—are less likely to apply to charter schools in kindergarten than are regular enrollment students.
The gap in special education rates between charter and traditional public schools grows considerably as students progress from kindergarten through third
grade. A large part (80 percent) of the growth in this gap over time is that charter schools are less likely than district schools to classify students as in need of special education services and more likely to declassify them.
The other 20 percent of the growth in the gap of special education rates is explained by students transferring between charter and district schools.
Surprisingly, the results do not suggest that charter
schools are refusing to admit or are pushing out
students with special needs. In fact, more students
with previously identified disabilities enter charter
schools than exit them as they progress through
elementary grade levels. The 20 percent growth in
the gap is driven by greater proportions of general
education students entering charter schools between
kindergarten and third grade, which has the effect of
reducing the total proportion of students with special
needs compared to the total number of students. In
other words, the gap increases because the number
of regular enrollment students in charter schools goes up as new students enroll, not because the number of students with disabilities goes down.
The growth in the special education gap between
charter and traditional public schools occurs mostly
in what could be considered the most subjective
categories of student disabilities: emotional disability
and specific learning disability. By far, the most
substantial growth in the special education gap
occurs in the least severe category, that of 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.
There is great mobility among special education
students regardless of whether they attend a charter
or traditional public school. Nearly a third of charter
school students who receive special education
services leave the charter school by the fourth year of
attendance. However, more than a third of traditional
public school students who receive special education
services leave their traditional public school before
the fourth year of attendance.
Overall, the results of these findings, at least for this
sample of schools, suggest that a significant portion
of the special education gap occurs when children
enter kindergarten. For whatever reason, students with
identified disabilities (particularly students with autism
and those with a speech or language impairment) are
less likely to enroll in charter schools. We cannot discern
the reasons for their parents’ choices in a statistical
analysis alone, and the issue deserves further study. It
may be, for example, that these students were enrolled
in specialized pre-school programs that feed into district
elementary schools. It is also possible that the parents
didn’t view charter schools as an appropriate fit for
their child, either because of their own assumptions
or because they were discouraged from applying by
counselors or by charter school staff.
Once a student enrolls in a charter school, the primary
driver of the special education gap occurs because
charter school students are significantly less likely to be
newly classified as having a disability and are far more
likely to have their IEP declassified than is the case in the
traditional public school sector.
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. 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.
Policy attention may be more usefully spent identifying
and replicating effective academic or behavioral
intervention practices that allow charter and district
schools to de-classify students with mild disabilities.
As well, policymakers should track across sectors the
satisfaction rates of parents of students with special needs
and students’ academic outcomes, particularly given
this study’s finding that nearly a third of students with
special needs change schools before their fourth year of
attendance, regardless of the type of school.
While the implications of this study deserve attention from
the field, the results should be considered specific to the
25 schools participating in the study and may or may not
apply more broadly. More research is needed to know if
the results would be the same in other locales and in a
broader sample of charter schools. We also need to know
more about the schools’ classification and intervention
practices as well as what factors influence whether or
not parents of children with special needs choose charter
schools. The Center on Reinventing Public Education will
conduct such studies in the coming year.
I am very grateful to the New York City Charter School Center, especially Michael Regnier and Daniel Hayman, for their assistance contacting charter schools. I am also grateful to Seth Andrew for his recruitment help. I am appreciative of the very helpful comments provided by Brian Gill, Lauren Morando Rhim, Joshua Cowen, Dick Carpenter, Brian Kisida, Jay Greene, and Ryan Marsh.
Funding for this project comes from the Walton Family Foundation. We thank the Foundation for its support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Foundation.
About the Author
Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. He conducts research and writes extensively on education policy, including topics such as school choice, accountability, and teacher quality. Winters has performed several studies on a variety of education policy issues including high-stakes testing, performance-pay for teachers, and the effects of vouchers on the public school system. His research has been published in the journals Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Educational Researcher, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Education Finance and Policy, Educational Finance, Economics of Education Review, and Teachers College Record. His op-ed articles have appeared in numerous newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and USA Today, and he is often quoted on education issues. Winters received a B.A. in political science from Ohio University in 2002, and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Arkansas in 2008.
About the Center on Reinventing Public Education
Through research and policy analysis, CRPE seeks ways to make public education more effective, especially for America’s disadvantaged students. We help redesign governance, oversight, and dynamic education delivery systems to make it possible for great educators and programs to do their best work with students and to create a wide range of high-quality public school options for families.
Our work emphasizes evidence over posture and confronts hard truths. We search outside the traditional boundaries of public education to find pragmatic, equitable, and promising approaches to address the complex challenges facing public education. Our goal is to create new possibilities for the parents, educators, and public officials who strive to improve America’s schools.
CRPE is a self-sustaining organization affiliated with the University of Washington. Our work is funded through private philanthropic dollars, federal grants, and contracts.
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- Robin Lake, Betheny Gross, and Patrick Denice, New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis (Seattle, WA: Center on
Reinventing Public Education, November 2012); “Students with Special Learning Needs and NYC Charter Schools, 2012-2013,” (New York:
New York City Charter School Center, April 2013).
- Cindy Chang, “New Orleans special needs students file federal lawsuit against Louisiana Department of Education,” New Orleans Times-
Picayune, October 29, 2010.
- See Joseph Belluck, “Memorandum to Members of the Charter Schools Committee,” October 2, 2012.