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Study: Charters Perform Well in Serving Special Needs Students

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An analysis of charter schools in New York state concludes that they enroll comparable percentages of students with disabilities as regular public schools in many circumstances, despite concerns raised recently at the national level by the Government Accountability Office.

The study, which relies on state data from the 2011-12 school year, finds that on the one hand, New York charter schools on average serve a smaller portion of special-needs students than regular, district-overseen schools. But it also concludes that those overall averages are in some ways misleading. A closer examination reveals that six in 10 charter schools in the state are serving similar percentages of children with disabilities as the majority of district-run schools—roughly 70 percent of those schools.

In addition, at the middle and high school levels, charter schools' enrollments of students with disabilites is "indistinguishable" from those of traditional districts in serving those children, according to the report. The report was released by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington, and commissioned by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a Chicago-based organization that seeks to improve charter school quality.

Overall, when it comes to gauging charters' record in enrolling special needs students, "different levels of comparison—state level, school type, district level, and authorizer level—yield different results," the report says. "Whether, and in what ways, charter schools appear to systemically underserve students with disabilities depends on how you answer the question, 'Compared to what?'"

At the elementary school level, charter schools in New York enroll a smaller percentage of special-needs students, compared to traditional district-led public schools statewide, and in comparison to charters' host districts.

But the authors say factors other than discrimination most likely explain that disparity.

Charter schools may be less likely to identify students with disabilities than regular public schools are, they say. In addition, specialized preschool programs which have designated feeder elementary schools could lead parents to choose the regular public option for their children. And the services for special-needs students at traditional public schools could simply be greater than they are at charters, because of federal mandates on school systems to provide those services.

When it comes to the relatively low special-needs elementary enrollment at charters, "we know a lot less about that problem then we thought we did," said Betheny Gross, a senior analyst at the center, in an interview. While "the instant reaction is to say they're somehow dissuading [special-needs] kids from enrolling," it makes little sense that that discrimination would occur at the elementary level and not at the middle and high school level, she noted.

The study offers a contrast with a report released earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency. The GAO found that charters across the nation, and in most individual states, enroll a smaller percentage of students with disabilities than do regular public schools. It said some charter schools could be discouraging students with special needs from enrolling, or denying them admission.

The New York study sought to examine special needs' populations within charter and traditional public schools more precisely than the GAO report did, by comparing charters with nearby, presumably comparable district schools, Gross explained. The new study also seeks to analyze how enrollments of special-needs students are distributed within each sector, an approach that is meant to account for schools that are outliers, in serving large or small numbers of those children. The authors focused on New York partly because of the availability of data there, and because the state recently adopted a policy designed to set school enrollment targets various student populations, including special-needs children, she said.

The authors say their study suggests that states should avoid attempting to set "one-size-fits-all" special-needs enrollment targets for charters and other public schools. States would be better off examining portions of their charter school sector where enrollment of students with disabilities is weakest, finding out what explains those disparities, and working to change it, the study concludes.

The New York study does not address one potential wildcard: how charters compare to traditional publics in serving students with severe, as opposed to relatively mild, disabilities. The researchers did not have access to data that would allow that comparison, Gross said.

Kimberly Hymes, director of policy and advocacy at the Council for Exceptional Children, said the study provides a "good foundation for more research questions," particularly those focused on why elementary charter schools are not enrolling more special needs students.

Some elementary charter schools almost certainly lack the expertise to identify and evaluate students with disabilities in the way that traditional school systems do—and that shortcoming can have major consequences for children, said Hymes, whose Arlington, Va.-based group advocates for those special-needs populations.

"Those are unique grades for kids with disabilities," said Hymes, who described elementary grades as "crucial to identifying [those] students and getting them on the right path" and giving them the help they need.

The fact that the study does not examine charters' record serving students with severe disabilities also leaves important, unanswered questions, she added.

"These students are not a homogenous group," Hymes said. "Any conversation has to [consider] what the population of students with disabilities looks like."


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