« Charter Schools in New York Can Now Certify Their Own Teachers | Main | The Only National Black School Choice Advocacy Group Is Folding »

Bill Gates Plans to Invest in Charter Schools' Big Weak Spot: Special Education

| No comments

Bill_Gates_CGCS-600 (002).jpg

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced plans to spend $1.7 billion on K-12 education over the next five years. So what does that mean for charter schools?

As my colleague Francisco Vara-Orta reports, 15 percent of that is slated for supporting charter schools and efforts within the sector to improve education for students with special needs—in particular, those with mild to moderate learning and behavioral disabilities.

This investment is particularly relevant because the charter school sector has long struggled with serving students with special needs.

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

Charters overall educate a smaller proportion of students with special needs than traditional district schools—a fact that is often raised by charter critics. A 2015 analysis of federal data by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools found that 12.6 percent of traditional public school students receive special education, compared to 10.4 percent in charter schools. However, that gap had shrunk since the 2008-09 school year, when a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that students with disabilities made up only 7.7 percent of charter school enrollment nationally, versus 11.3 percent in district schools.

Although it's unclear at this point exactly how much of that 15 percent of $1.7 billion will go toward special education in charter schools, Gates' announcement is important for a couple of different reasons, said Lauren Morando Rhim, the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

"On a very tangible level, it can foster the development in exemplary and innovative programs, and there is a lot of room for improvement in special ed.," she said.

Secondly, Gates is not just a deep-pocketed funder, it's an influential one that other philanthropists and foundations look to when choosing what to invest in, Rhim said.

"The hope is that it will have a domino effect," she said.

Why Do Charter Schools Serve Fewer Special Education Students?

There are several potential reasons for that persistent gap between district schools and charter schools, according to Rhim. Among them:

Authorizers, the groups with the power under state law to award charters and oversee them once they are open, may not prioritize special education and hold their schools accountable for serving students with special needs. 

Some charter schools—especially stand-alone campuses that are not part of a larger network or a traditional school district—often lack the scale and infrastructure to serve students with disabilities. 

And finally, some charter schools may illegally turn away students with disabilities because they are expensive to educate or will bring down the school's overall test scores.

"There are also some bad actors in the charter sector, and I think it's important to acknowledge that," Rhim said. "I think they get an inordinate amount of attention, I think it's much more complex than that, but I do think it's important to acknowledge."

Related stories:

Don't miss another Charters & Choice post. Sign up here to get news alerts in your email inbox.

Photo: Bill Gates addresses the CGCS Fall Conference in Cleveland on Oct. 19. —Clarence Tabb Jr./CGCS

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.


Most Viewed on Education Week



Recent Comments