More support of charters in special ed enrollment dispute

More support of charters in special ed enrollment dispute

(Wash.) A second study on enrollment trends in a major metropolitan area further absolves charter schools from complaints they systematically exclude too many special education students through admission or other academic policies.

Last fall, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, in partnership with the Manhattan Institute, reported that an enrollment gap between charter and traditional schools among students with disabilities in New York schools had more to do with parental choice than any other factor.

Now, the same research team has analyzed a similar enrollment gap in the Denver city schools and come away with almost identical conclusions.

“It doesn’t appear to be caused by charter schools pushing students out,” said Marcus Winters, author of both reports. “Instead, the gap is mostly due to student preferences for different types of schools, how schools classify and declassify students, and the movement of students without disabilities across sectors.”

Charter critics have noted the enrollment disparity with traditional public schools when it comes to students with disabilities and have complained that admission policies or other administrative tools were being used to push special education expenses on to districts.

The new research comes as the U.S. Department of Education released Tuesday results of a compliance and performance review on how students with disabilities were performing nationally. Federal officials said they have refined measurement tools to focus more on student outcomes – as a result the number of states in compliance with federal benchmarks has fallen from 38 to 15.

California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Texas, the Bureau of Indian Education and the Virgin Islands were all singled out for needing intervention under the federal review.

How charter schools fit into future service to students with disabilities is a critical question. A 2012 report from the General Accounting Office found approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools during the 2009-10 school year.

Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute – a right-leaning policy center that specializes in education issues – is also an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Both the New York study and the Denver research were commissioned by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based policy-research group run out of the University of Washington's Bothell campus.

Still, Winters’ findings are hard to argue with:

  • Students with special needs are less likely to apply to charter schools in kindergarten and sixth grade: In the gateway grades, when students are most likely to choose schools, those with disabilities are significantly less likely to apply to charter schools than are students without disabilities. This difference explains the majority of the gap in middle school grades, particularly for certain categories of disability.
  • The gap grows significantly between kindergarten and fifth grade: 46 percent of the growth occurs because charter schools are less likely to classify students as special education, and more likely to declassify them; 54 percent is due to the number of new general education students enrolling in charter schools, not from the number of students with special needs going down.
  • Students with special needs in charter schools change schools less often than those in traditional public schools: Five years after enrolling in kindergarten, about 65 percent of charter students with special needs are still in their original schools, while only 37 percent of traditional public school students with special needs are still in their original schools.

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