In a new report, the United Federation of Teachers has committed to a fresh line of attack against charter schools: Charters arent enrolling enough special education students. The teachers union doesnt want the state Legislature to lift its cap on the number of charter schools until - among a whole raft of other “reforms” - they enroll their fair share of disabled kids.
Its true that a lower proportion of charter school students are in special education relative to the surrounding public schools. However, the reasons for the special education gap are nuanced and are not primarily driven by the charters bad behavior. In fact, the lower percentages of special education students in charters may actually be a sign of what theyre doing right.
First, lets dispel a myth. Disabled students who seek a seat in a charter school are not systematically denied access to it. According to the recent landmark study by Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby, when students who have already been diagnosed as disabled enter a charter school lottery, they are just as likely as other students to win a seat; among those who win a seat, disabled kids are just as likely to enroll, and among those who enroll, special education students are no more likely to return to a traditional public school.
That leaves two potential explanations for the special education gap: Either disabled students choose not to apply to attend charters, or students who would have been placed in special education by their public school avoid the diagnosis when they attend a charter school. A close look at special education rates by grade level in New York City provides some clues that differences in the rate of diagnosis play a major role.
To be clear, the evidence I present here is only suggestive. Further research with more precise data than are presently available could produce more definitive answers. However, looking closely at the numbers we have now is a good beginning.
Lets start with kindergarten, the grade when about a third of charter schools eventual students enroll. In this early grade, before the schools themselves have had the opportunity to diagnose students, the difference in special education enrollments between public schools (11.2%) and charters (7.6%) is relatively small.
This gap grows as students proceed through elementary school and reaches its zenith in the fourth grade, when 17.3% of public school students are in special ed, compared with only 10.4% of charter school students.
Interestingly, this is a time when relatively few new students enter charter schools, suggesting that the biggest difference between public and charter schools is the rate at which they classify already-enrolled students as disabled.
That the rate of new classifications appears to be lower in charter schools is particularly interesting given that charter school applicants tend to be minority, low-income and low-scoring on standardized tests - all attributes that typically correlate with special education placement. Charter schools would need to be pretty crafty to discourage only the applications of undiagnosed students with these characteristics who will be diagnosed in a later grade.
Why might new diagnoses differ in public and charter schools? Research suggests that overdiagnosis of disabilities is rampant in public schools. Charter schools may not be as willing to push a borderline student into special education. Or perhaps charter schools provide these students with a good enough education that their performance doesnt lag to the point that the school feels compelled to place them in special education.
The special education gap rapidly declines after the fourth grade, as new students begin to enter charter middle schools. By the 10th grade, the gap actually reverses. By their senior year, 15.2% of charter school students are in special education, compared with 9.8% of public school students. We should be wary of drawing firm conclusions - but a reasonable preliminary interpretation is that while special education students are dropping out of public schools, their charter school counterparts may be sticking around to graduate.
Where charter schools do seem to fall behind is in the enrollment of severely disabled students. They need to do better to ensure that their schools are open to these more severely disabled kids - but some of the disparity exists simply because charter schools, like small traditional public schools, lack the wide range of specialized services that larger schools are equipped to offer.
The differences in special education rates between public and charter schools are not primarily the result of nefarious forces. The available evidence gives no reason for the state Legislature to add burdensome restrictions for charter schools.
Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2010/01/06/2010-01-06_charters__special_ed_the_truth.html