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Charter Schools Enroll Lower Rates of Students With Disabilities

A new U.S. Government Accountability Office report about students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools found what many in the special education arena already knew: These kids don't show up in charters at the same rates they do in traditional public schools.

But the GAO report did offer one of the first comprehensive national looks at the phenomenon.

For example, as you'll see in the complete story on this report from me and my colleague Sean Cavanagh over at the Charters & Choice blog, the GAO looked at every state to see whether the percentage of students with disabilities in traditional public schools matched the percentage in charters. The majority, you'll see on page 8 of the report, don't even come close.

The exclusion of students with disabilities, especially severe disabilities is especially troubling though, as charter schools expand and grow in number, said Ricki Sabia, associate director for education for the National Down Syndome Society. When charters fail to enroll the same proportion of the students with special needs, they aren't competing on a level playing field with traditional public schools, who don't have the ability to turn away students they don't want to enroll.

"Charters and vouchers are being described as paths to improve education but they tend to cater to select groups of students and that makes them look higher performing," Sabia said. "We hope that the Department of Education and Congress will require charter schools to recruit and accept students of all levels of abilities, including students with [intellectual disabilities], and educate them in inclusive environments."

The federal Education Department said it is taking a number of steps to address the issue and has launched investigations regarding charter enrollment practices and related issues in four states.

But Laura Kaloi of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said the work must go beyond just getting kids with disabilities in the door.

Of those students who are enrolled, she said "How are they doing?" She pointed out that several states could not provide the GAO with data about how many students with disabilities are even enrolled in their charter schools. She wondered whether that violates the federal No Child Left Behind and Individuals with Disabilities Education acts.

Those states, then, may be hard-pressed to show how students with disabilities in their charter schools are performing academically.

"Ultimately, the goal is to close the achievement gap for those kids and have them work on grade level with their peers," at a charter school or anywhere else, she said.

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