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

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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.

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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."

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

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