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New York Daily News

 

The Truth About Charter Schools and Special Education

October 01, 2013

By Marcus A. Winters

PRINTER FRIENDLY

It’s a far more complicated picture than the one critics paint

Charter school critics pounce on the fact that, on average, charters serve a smaller percentage of students with disabilities than traditional district-run public schools. To date, however, there has been little research on why this gap exists. Critics contend that charters “push out” low-performing students, including those requiring special education services, who must then attend traditional public schools.

In a new report for the Center on Reinventing Public Education and the Manhattan Institute, I identify the origins and map the growth of this gap between charters and traditional public schools in New York City elementary schools. It turns out that a variety of factors contribute to the gap, many of which are either unworrisome or likely beneficial for kids. And recent policy proposals intended to address the special education gap are not well-designed.

My analysis is based on enrollment data tracking individual students over time from kindergarten through the third grade. I also collected information from the enrollment lotteries for a sample of charter elementary schools, which allowed me to compare the special education enrollment rates of students who attended charter schools with those applicants who instead attended a traditional public school. Because both sets of students applied to attend a charter, this analysis goes a long way toward controlling for differences in the type of child who attends a charter school.

The study reveals several important findings.

First: The primary driver of the special education gap is the type of student who chooses to apply for a charter school. Parents of students with special needs are less likely to choose to apply to charter schools, especially autistic students and students with a speech or language disability.

The gap grows by another 20% as students progress through the third grade. Nearly all of this growth occurs in the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed category of student disabilities: specific learning disability. That’s important because specific learning disability is a category widely recognized to be over-identified among low-performing students.

I find evidence that charter schooling itself significantly reduces the chances that a student is designated as needing special education services, particularly in the category of specific learning disability. That is, the gap grows in part because some charter school students enrolled in regular education classrooms would have been placed into special education had they instead attended a traditional public school.

Why might attending a charter school decrease the likelihood of being placed into special education? Perhaps charters prefer when possible to avoid the disability label. In addition, research suggests that students attending New York City’s charter schools on average learn more than they would have in a traditional public school. Thus, it is possible that some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically and thus are never designated as disabled.

Movement of students across sectors over time explains a very small portion of the growth in the special education gap. And it does so in a somewhat unexpected way. Charters pushing special education students out the door does not appear to be producing much of the special education gap at all.

Though the special education gap grows as students progress through elementary grades, it’s not because students with special needs are exiting. In fact, more students designated with special needs enter charter schools in those grades than exit them.

What’s more, special education students in New York City are a very mobile population regardless of the sector they attend. It’s true that about a quarter of charter school students who were enrolled in special education in kindergarten had left their school within four years. But an even larger percentage (29%) of students with disabilities in traditional public schools had moved to another school within four years.

The difference is that when charter school students with disabilities move, they usually end up in a traditional public school — perhaps because there are more of them, or perhaps because charters accept relatively few students in non-gateway grades — thus reducing the percentage of students with disabilities within the charter sector.

Finally, the special education gap increases as students progress through school in part because of the movement of non-disabled students. As previously mentioned, students with special needs are more likely to exit charters due to natural mobility, and regular enrollment students are more likely to apply. As a result, regular enrollment students are more likely to fill the few open charter school seats available in non-gateway grades. This movement of regular-enrollment students into charters contributes to the special education gap by increasing the total number of students in charters as the number of students with special needs decreases.

New York state law now requires charter authorizers to set enrollment and attendance targets for students with disabilities. At a forum sponsored by the Daily News, mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio signaled that he believes that charter schools should have to serve students with special needs at the same rate as traditional public schools.

My findings suggest that laws requiring charters to meet benchmarks for the percentages of their kids in special education programs will likely prove ineffective and might even be harmful for kids. Such regulations could force charter schools to push for disability diagnoses for students who otherwise would have avoided the designation. That would be bad for young people.

Developing sound policies requires that we not only document the existence of the special education gap, but also that we firmly understand the factors that are producing it. Though there are enough anecdotes to suggest it might occur in limited cases, the data shows that the special education gap is not largely influenced by charters pushing their students with disabilities out the door.

Original Source: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/truth-charter-schools-special-education-article-1.1472558

 

 
 
 

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