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Do Charter Schools Serve Fewer Special Education Students?

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Good blog and comments. Another wrinkle: Question: X has 70% poverty and 18% of kids in special education. X has 78% poverty and 12% of kids in special education. Is there a "service gap?" By GAO logic, yes. What if X = Boston Public Schools and Y = Chelsea Public Schools, which abuts BPS I'm wondering when the GAO begins its Chelsea audit...

This blog describes a very important methodological point--one that charter proponents should heed. Most charters (at least in Texas) make a big deal out of serving a greater percentage of economically disadvantaged and minority students than other schools. And, by other schools, they mean all other schools in the state. As you point out, charters are disproportionately in urban areas which serve greater proportions of poor and minority kids. When you compare schools in the same neighborhood, the gap between charters and non-charters with respect to poor and minority students largely disappears. I'd love to see you write a post on that and call out the charter supporters that misuse the data in that way. Yet, as I show in my forthcoming paper on Texas charter schools, a lower percentage of students designated as special ed (and ELL) enter charters from the local neighborhoods in which charters reside. The same is true when comparing students entering charters from schools that send at least one student into a charter.

My only complaint is that you buried the lede. You make a great case explaining that the disparity between charters and the public schools is even greater than a less sophisticated reaading of the GAO would indicate. Stuart, no, your speculation does not follow, and the truth is probably the opposite of what you assert. Urban districts have high concentrations of IEP students because they serve the kids who are left behind after most families exercise their panoply of choices. The most important point was made by KatieO. There is a huge difference between students with learning disabilities or mental health conditions and serious emotionally disturbed or mentally ill students. Back when my school was only 70% low income, it was easy to see who was who, without looking at the IEP. Kids who sat on the front row, kept their notebooks orderly, worked hard and worked smart bell-to-bell, were likely to be LD. Since then, all of those kids have found charters or magnets and are doing wonderfully. If the principals did not try to assess disciplinary consequences to the chronic hallwalkers who got into fights on a daily basis, it was because they were not allowed to. Those were kids whose out-of-control behavior was linked to their emotional disablities. Principals were not even allowed to suspend them for a knife if the blade was shorter than 2-1/2 inches. Once we became 100% low income, and had extreme concentrations of kids who were horribly traumatized, it meant that principals couldn't even think about establishing an orderly environment. I'm struck by how few researchers even try to address that issue. My suspicion is that many researchers are unaware of this huge dynamic.

The response I always hear to this is, well public schools are over inflating their SPED numbers. Has anyone ever tested that hypothesis? maybe taking a random sample of charter and TPS students and testing them for learning disabilities?

One more point to add: I work at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago where I meet kids from all over the area including many kids from charter schools as well as neighborhood, selective enrollment, private, alternative, therapeutic day, and magnet schools. In my experience, the TYPES of disabilties between charters and the local neighborhood school are strikingly different. Of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of current charter school students I have worked with, almost without expection, none of them have significant acting-out behaviors, severe cognitive delays, or other severe learning problems (although some who no longer go to charters do have these problems). The charter kids tend to be, and I mean almost always, well-behaved, quieter, academically strong kids with anxiety or depression, and might have mild learning disabilities. Meanwhile, we get many neighborhood school kids who are aggressive, oppositional, and have significant learning difficulties. Many probably need more intensive interventions like a therapeutic day school might provide, but there are not nearly enough spots in these schools to accomodate all the kids with severe behavior problems in Chicago. The percentages mask these deeper divides. The charters in Chicago are not serving the toughest, most expensive kids.

When I see what seem to be astronomical special ed rates for some places (e.g., Cleveland) -- rates that are much higher than elsewhere -- it seems unlikely to me that these are real disabilities with a biological basis -- i.e., autism, real dyslexia, etc. Instead, it seems likely that some kids classified as "special ed" don't really have a biological problem; they just haven't learned very much. If that's the case, then it seems problematic (to say the least) to suggest that schools should try to have a greater number of kids who don't learn very much.

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