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Special Education

  • Charter Schools, Special Education Students, And Test-Based Accountability

    Written on April 7, 2015

    Opponents often argue that charter schools tend to serve a disproportionately low number of special education students. And, while there may be exceptions and certainly a great deal of variation, that argument is essentially accurate. Regardless of why this is the case (and there is plenty of contentious debate about that), some charter school supporters have acknowledged that it may be a problem insofar as charters are viewed as a large scale alternative to regular public schools.

    For example, Robin Lake, writing for the Center for Reinventing Public Education, takes issue with her fellow charter supporters who assert that “we cannot expect every school to be all things to every child.” She argues instead that schools, regardless of their governance structures, should never “send the soft message that kids with significant differences are not welcome,” or treat them as if “they are somebody else’s problem.” Rather, Ms. Lake calls upon charter school operators to take up the banner of serving the most vulnerable and challenging students and “work for systemic special education solutions.”

    These are, needless to say, noble thoughts, with which many charter opponents and supporters can agree. Still, there is a somewhat more technocratic but perhaps more actionable issue lurking beneath the surface here: Put simply, until test-based accountability systems in the U.S. are redesigned such that they stop penalizing schools for the students they serve, rather than their effectiveness in serving those students, there will be a rather strong disincentive for charters to focus aggressively on serving special education students. Moreover, whatever accountability disadvantage may be faced by regular public schools that serve higher proportions of special education students pales in comparison with that faced by all schools, charter and regular public, located in higher-poverty areas. In this sense, then, addressing this problem is something that charter supporters and opponents should be doing together.

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  • Revisiting The Issue Of Charter Schools And Special Education Students

    Written on January 7, 2014

    One of the most common claims against charter schools is that they “push out” special education students. The basic idea is that charter operators, who are obsessed with being able to show strong test results and thus bolster their reputations and enrollment, subtlety or not-so-subtlety “counsel out” students with special education plans (or somehow discourage their enrollment).

    This is, of course, a serious issue, one that is addressed directly in a recent report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which presents an analysis of data from a sample of New York City charter elementary schools (and compares them to regular public schools in the city). It is important to note that many of the primary results of this study, including those focused on the "pushing out" issue, cannot be used to draw any conclusions about charters across the nation. There were only 25 NYC charters included in that (lottery) analysis, all of them elementary schools, and these were not necessarily representative of the charter sector in the city, to say nothing of charters nationwide.

    That said, the report, written by Marcus Winters, finds, among other things, that charters enroll a smaller proportion of special education students than regular public schools (as is the case elsewhere), and that this is primarily because these students are less likely to apply for entrance to charters (in this case, in kindergarten) than their regular education peers. He also presents results suggesting that this gap actually grows in later grades, mostly because of charters being less likely to classify students as having special needs, and more likely to reclassify them as not having special needs once they have been put on a special education plan (whether or not these classifications and declassifications are appropriate is of course not examined in this report).

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  • Do Charter Schools Serve Fewer Special Education Students?

    Written on June 21, 2012

    A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides one of the first large-scale comparisons of special education enrollment between charter and regular public schools. The report’s primary finding, which, predictably, received a fair amount of attention, is that roughly 11 percent of students enrolled in regular public schools were on special education plans in 2009-10, compared with just 8 percent of charter school students.

    The GAO report’s authors are very careful to note that their findings merely describe what you might call the “service gap” – i.e., the proportion of special education students served by charters versus regular public schools – but that they do not indicate the reasons for this disparity.

    This is an important point, but I would take the warning a step further:  The national- and state-level gaps themselves should be interpreted with the most extreme caution.

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