Revisiting The Issue Of Charter Schools And Special Education Students

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).

Thus, there is a gap between these charters and NYC regular public schools in terms of special education enrollment, one which occurs largely at the point of entry. There is not, however, much indication that these particular charters are "pushing out" large numbers of students with disabilities, and there is also some evidence of inter-sectoral differences in the likelihood of classification and declassification, at least in the small sample of schools included in the analysis. To the degree there is a takeaway message here that might apply beyond NYC, it is that the mere existence of a charter/regular public school gap in special education enrollment does not tell us much about the reasons for that gap.

But this particular analysis also speaks to a couple of wider points about the issue of charters and special education students. The first is that those who accuse charter schools of pushing out special education students may not be framing their argument very well. To whatever degree some subset of charter operators are indeed attempting to bolster their results by “counseling out” students, they would presumably do so based on traits, such as low performance or behavioral issues, for which special education status is just a proxy (see this related paper).

Thus, comparisons of charter and regular public schools in terms of their special education populations are obviously worthwhile and important for a number of reasons, but, in the context of the “counseling out” issue, they are only a partial tool. Even if charter and regular public schools served equal proportions of students with special needs, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that there was no deselection based on characteristics that might be associated with different outcomes.

My second point is kind of the flip side of this argument: Even if there is a substantial gap in special education populations, it doesn't tell us why this gap arises (this is a major feature of Winters’ analysis, which, again, focuses on explaining the reasons behind the gap). Actually, I am obliged to once again raise the possibility that the theoretical underpinnings of school choice predict that this kind of selection and deselection of students based on characteristics such as ability and behavior not only may occur, but actually is designed to occur.

The whole idea of school choice is that a “marketplace” of sorts will arise, in which schools survive or fail based on their ability to satisfy the needs of parents who are shopping for schools that are best suited for their children. Most likely, over time and as sectors grow, some of these schools will cater to traditionally "high-performing" students, others to students at lower levels or those with special needs. In a fully choice-based system, we might therefore expect some segregation of students based on these traits. In fact, if you believe the choice theory, we might actually want that segregation, as it would signal that parents are making informed choices.

Unfortunately, in our obsessively test-based accountability education culture, with its crude measures that conflate student and school performance, there is little incentive to cater to lower-performing student populations, not only because of the risk they pose in terms of low test scores, but also because doing so can be extraordinarily expensive – involving more intensive interventions and much more instructional time than is the norm.

It’s therefore not surprising that some schools might react by trying to minimize their costs and maximize results. If, however, you buy the choice theory, and if these financial and measurement issues were somehow addressed, over time, you would expect to see the emergence of more and more schools that were tailored to meet the specific needs of students with low test scores and/or behavioral issues.

So, just as charter opponents may be missing the point by focusing on special education proportions, supporters may also be oversimplifying their positions by implying that charter schools are supposed to be “general practitioners” that can serve all students equally well, regardless of their characteristics. Specialization is an inherent part of the choice paradigm.

- Matt Di Carlo


I really can't imagine a marketplace evolving in which parents seek out schools that specialize in low performing students.
Parents do not want to believe their children are low performing, and that is why choice will not work.


As a retired teacher of the deaf who attended a two year Master's Degree program in Education of the Deaf at Gallaudet University, I have several concerns regarding whether or not charters enroll a comparable proportion of special needs students as do regular public schools. To those with limited to no background in teaching students with special needs, it may seem self-evident that teaching these students does not require any particular training. I have seen ads for charter schools recruiting special ed teachers with limited requirements for course work or experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Federal law guarantees that each student with special needs be provided with a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (which, for some students, such as many profoundly deaf students, means a special school). Are charters willing and able to provide the additional personnel and equipment that special needs students require (speech/language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, social workers, etc.)? As more and more money is siphoned off from public schools to charter schools, the resources for those students and teachers remaining in the public schools collapse. Education professionals know how to design appropriate curricular materials for students in all their variety. The public needs to step up to the plate and provide the resources that these students deserve. That needs to happen in a public system that is accountable to the public, and not in a charter system that operates without transparency.


I agree with Ajay's comment. You need to show more skepticism towards these reports that are produced by clearly biased parties. It is obvious that charters can use their "insider" knowledge of each student to selectively attrite students who are not making the grade. That can account for their lower special education referral rate: instead of providing kids with more support they throw them out. Again we do not know for sure how widespread this practice is among NYC charter schools but to pretend that this report, produced by the charter sector itself, does anything to shed light on the question is ridiculous.
In fact the NYC Independent Budget Office just came out with a report showing some opposite trends


Good blog.

Two thoughts.

1. You write: "There is little incentive to cater to lower-performing student populations."

I wonder. In places where test GROWTH is the coin of the realm, instead of absolute scores, aren't low-performing students precisely the ones to target?

In fact, isn't there an MIT paper which makes precisely this point vis a vis Boston. The kids who make the biggest gains are the lowest-arrivers.

A school leader who wants the largest aggregate gains would therefore want to attract low-performers, no?

2. In my observation at reasonably high-performing high-poverty charters, limited labor (teacher time after school, tutors, etc) is almost exclusively devoted to LOW performers. In 2 ways.

First, a strong kid in relative terms never gets type of help that would get her to, say, Cornell instead of State...i.e., math teacher is helping a struggler to learn basic algebra, less time to help you (or push you with AP Calc), so you score a 2 instead of a 4.

Second, there are few electives or after-school clubs targeted to advanced students. Nobody to run them like in traditional schools. Teacher time again towards helping lower kids.

3. You write: "The whole idea of school choice is that a “marketplace” of sorts will arise."

That's fair but not necessarily the whole idea of charters per se. As you know, reasons like permitting innovation, escaping well-intentioned but harmful regulation (precisely some SPED situations), decision-making closer to the classroom, are others.

A fourth reason was Bill Clinton's support for charters precisely as a middle ground to *forestalling* other types of school choice. That question was called again in the 2008 primary, and presumably will surface in 2016 as well.