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Special Education Enrollment on Upward Trend in Charter Schools

Students with disabilities made up about 10.6 percent of the charter school population, compared to about 12.5 percent of the population for traditional public schools, according to a recent analysis of federal data by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

That enrollment percentage, based on 2013-14 (the most recent national data available) is up from 10.4 percent  in 2012-13.

But a deeper dive into the federal data shows that special education enrollment differs depending on the type of charter school under examination. 

State charter laws determine whether a charter school operates completely independently of the local school district, or if it is considered a part of the local district. Those that operate independently of the local school systems enroll more students with disabilities—about 11.5 percent. Most charter schools in Massachusetts, Michigan, and North Carolina fit into this category. 

In contrast, charter schools that are considered part of a district's overall portfolio of schools have a smaller special education enrollment, about 9.7 percent. Most charter schools in California, Colorado, and Florida fit in to this legal structure. 

What's driving the difference? Lauren Morando Rhim, the organization's co-founder and executive director, suggested that students with disabilities might be steered to a district's existing programs, rather than charters operating in that district. In contract, independent charters are legally responsible under the Individuals with Disabilities Act to offer a full "continuum of services" for students with special needs. 

And, as public schools, charters don't ring the same concern as vouchers, said Selene Almazan, the legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. Almazan's organization is concerned that parents who accept vouchers may be unaware that they are waiving certain legal rights

Notable Trends in Special Education Placement and Discipline

These numbers come school data collected as part of the Civil Rights Data Collection, required by the U.S. Department of Education. For the second year in a row, NCSECS collected this data to shed light on the status of students in disabilities who attend charters, which are publicly funded but independently run. (I moderated a panel Tuesday organized by NCSECS to share the report's findings.) 

Other interesting tidbits from the report: 

  • Special education students in charter schools tend to spend more time in general education settings: Around 84 percent spent most of the day in the regular classroom, compared to 68 percent of special education students in traditional public schools. 

  • Both charter schools and traditional public schools suspend special education students about twice as often as the suspension rate for all students. The overall suspension rate for all students in charter schools about 6.6 percent, but about 12.6 percent of students suspended in charter schools have disabilities. The suspension rate for students in traditional public schools is 5.6 percent, but around 11.6 percent of students suspended in traditional public schools are in special eduction. 

  • Charter schools reported enrolling slightly higher percentages of students with specific learning disabilities, autism and emotional disturbances compared to traditional public schools. But compared to traditional public schools, they had lower enrollment of students with developmental delays or intellectual disabilities. 

Seth Galanter, a former official in the Education Department's office for civil rights, said that the numbers "dispel the myth that there's this monolith of charter schools that exclude students with disabilities." But he cautioned that only about 80 percent of charter schools responded to the data collection, and the ones that didn't respond could be the ones with the biggest problems. 

Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, noted the high percentage of charter students who are fully included in general education. That merits further study of schools that may be doing "cutting-edge stuff,"  he said.


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