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Breaking Down Special-Needs Counts in Charters

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The Government Accountability Office on Tuesday released a report documenting what many special-needs advocates say they have known, or at least strongly suspected, for years: that charter schools tend to serve lower populations of students with disabilities than do traditional public schools. Some of the takeaways from the report—see our full story for more details—come from looking not only at the overall picture, but from a more detailed dissection of where the largest populations of special-needs students tend to be clustered.

On that point, the GAO found that the schools with larger populations of students with disabilities tend to be traditional publics, not charters—and that the higher the concentration of special-needs enrollees, the more likely the school is to be a traditional public one.

Let's begin with the schools where only a fraction of the students, less than 4 percent, have a disability. Just 3.4 percent of traditional publics fall into that category, while many more charter schools do—nearly 17 percent.

But at schools where a larger chunk of the student population, between 8 percent and 12 percent, have special needs, traditional publics are playing a much bigger role. A much higher portion of traditional public schools, 34 percent of them, are found in that category, while just 23 percent of charters are. At schools where between 12 percent and 16 percent of students have disabilities, the pattern continues: 25 percent of traditional publics have special-needs populations of that size, while just 12.5 percent of charters do.

Here's a breakdown of the special-needs student populations at charters and traditional public schools:


As we mentioned in our story, the GAO also found that in most states, charters enrolled a smaller percentage of students with disabilities than did traditional public schools.

There were exceptions. In eight states, including Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the same or a higher portion of special-needs students were enrolled in charters as were served by regular public schools:


A pair of Democratic congressmen, U.S. Reps. George Miller, of California, and Raul Grijalva, of Arizona, asked GAO to conduct the study. In a statement, Miller credited charter schools with "breaking down old stereotypes about which students can and can't learn—whether poor, minority, or a student with a disability."

But the lawmaker also said Congress and the U.S. Department of Education need to hold charters to tougher standards.

"We need to ensure that students with disabilities are a part of the educational revolution that is taking place within charter schools," Miller said. The focus should be on "providing students with disabilities the full opportunity to achieve a complete mainstream education whether in a traditional public school or a charter school."

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