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Study: Why So Few Special Needs Students in N.Y.C. Charters?

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The well-documented phenomenon of charter schools serving smaller percentages of students with special needs than regular schools do stems from  a smaller portion of families of students with special needs applying to charter schools as their children enter kindergarten, says a new study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education focusing on the New York City school system.

The study, written by Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, in Colorado Springs, studied enrollment data from the 2008-09 school year provided by the New York City Department of Education as well as 25 elementary charter schools in New York City. 

While critics of charter schools have long-claimed that such schools push out or discourage students with special needs from entering and succeeding there, the study states: "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."

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that charter schools serve a student body with 8.2 percent of those students requiring special services, while the regular public schools on average a student population where about 11.2 percent are students with special needs. In New York City, the average percentage of students with special needs in charter schools hovers at 13.1 percent while the average percentage of students with special needs in regular public schools clocks in around 16.5 percent.

Although the gap is initially created because of a smaller percentage of families with children of special needs applying to enroll their children in charter schools in kindergarten, the gap continues to grow throughout elementary school, the study found, in large part because charter schools are less likely to identify students as having special needs and are more likely to declassify those students' individualized education plans.

That finding needs more investigation to determine the reasons behind it, says Winters in the study. He also suggests that policies that require charter schools to hit certain targets for percentages of students with special needs may be ineffective or potentially harmful for students. Requiring charter schools to enroll a certain percentage of students with special needs "could have the impact of forcing charter schools to push for a disability diagnosis for students who otherwise would have avoided the designation," the report says. 

Instead, the study recommends focusing on tracking student and parent satisfaction with special education services as well as those students' academic outcomes in more depth. 

Finally, the report found that regardless of whether students with special needs enter charter or regular schools, they tend to experience a much higher rate of mobility than their peers. Nearly a third of students with special needs in both charter schools and regular public schools transfer out by the end of their fourth year, the report says—a finding that also needs more investigation, the report acknowledges. 

The Center on Reinventing Public Education will be investigating the dynamics of special education in charter schools in other locations in the coming year to shed more light on the issue and see whether the issues at play in New York City are representative of other districts with charter schools.

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