Charter schools in Denver have fewer students with learning disabilities than their traditional counterparts, but a new study finds that the gap in enrollment is not fueled by charters turning away students or counseling them out of their schools.
The study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington found that fewer special needs students applied to charter schools in Denver, creating an enrollment gap which grew over time because of differences in the ways that schools classify students and in their student population sizes.
"If counseling out is what is driving this, then what we should see is a big exodus of kids with IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] out of charters," which wasn't the case, says the study's author, Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank that says it focuses on "economic choice and individual responsibility."
The findings are similar to a study that Winters did for the Center for Reinventing Public Education on New York City schools last year.
Whether charter schools "counsel out" students with disabilities is a dicey topic. Critics charge that charter schools turn away or weed out special needs students in order to improve the overall academic outcomes of their schools.
The Application Gap
Under Denver's school choice policy, each student gets to list the top five schools they would like to attend, to which the district then tries to match them. Numbers from the 2012-2013 school year (the only year data was available) show that fewer students with disabilities applied to charter schools in the first place.
Although charter schools might not counsel out special education students in a systematic way, the study acknowledges there could be subtle forces at work that dissuade parents of students with learning disabilities to apply to charter schools. It starts with the way schools advertise to perspective parents says Lauren Morando Rhim, the executive director of National Center for Public Education in Charter Schools. Rhim was not involved in the CRPE study.
"Each piece of promotional material can be an opportunity to welcome students, Rhim says. "If a school is completely silent about special ed, then what message are you sending?"
Rhim adds that the networks between families with special needs children are tight, and if one has a bad experience, it could affect others' perceptions and willingness to apply to a charter.
The Growing Gap
The special education gap between charters and public schools also got larger by grade level. Winters attributes about half of the gap's growth to charters' smaller student populations. For example, a general education student moving into a charter school creates a bigger change in the gap's percentage because the population of charter school students is much smaller than the traditional schools.
[UPDATE: In an earlier version of this story and in the CRPE report, the labels for traditional and public schools on this graph were reversed.]
The other half of the gap's growth comes from classification differences, says Winters. He found that charter schools were less likely to classify students with learning disabilities and more likely to declassify them.
"What I suspect, and what's consistent with New York City, [is that] the driver here could be in the effectiveness of the charter school," says Winters. "This classification difference is primarily specific learning disability, which is really classified by low student achievement."
Specific learning disabilities include noncognitive disabilities like dyslexia and, Winters says, there can be more subjectivity among diagnoses than there is for, say, a traumatic brain injury.
Special learning disabilities also account for the bulk of special needs students countrywide, according to Lindsay Jones, the director of public policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and she said the number of diagnoses has been going down in traditional schools.
"I think it's hard to tell from that study whether charter schools are not properly identifying students with disabilities, or whether they're just doing a good job teaching," says Jones.
The CRPE Denver study stops short of saying definitively why students with learning disabilities aren't applying to charter schools, or why there's a difference in classifications. Winters says that's outside the realm of what he can do with this specific data.
"I don't want anything in this report to suggest that no parent has had this bad experience [of being counseled out]. Charter schools should be held accountable when this occurs," says Winters. "But that can't be explaining the special education gap. Policies designed to address the counseling out won't be addressing the gap."
Graphs from 'Understanding the Charter School Special Education Gap: Evidence from Denver, Colorado,' by Marcus A. Winters for the Center on Reinventing Public Education