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 students.
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 reportsthat 13.1 percent of city charter school students receive special education services compared to 16.5 percent intraditional public schools.1
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.2 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.3
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 Programs (IEPs).
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 thosewho instead enrolled in traditional public schools.
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.