When the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in 2012 finding that charter schools, on average, served a smaller proportion of students with disabilities than district-run public schools, there was a lot of speculation—but little empirical evidence—about the causes for the differences in rates (see the figure below from the GAO report).
A new study, Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools, released today by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research thoroughly examines some of the common theories for the differences in special education rates using student-level data. The study follows four cohorts of kindergartners who enrolled in public charter schools and traditional public schools from 2008-2009 through 2011-2012 to look at special education enrollment rates between types of schools, the characteristics of students who apply to charter schools, special education classification trends over time, and the mobility of special education and regular education students between types of schools. The study finds that:
- Results confirm that there is a gap in special education enrollment in NYC between charter schools and traditional public schools. The study finds that the gap in the rate of enrollment was primarily because students with specific types of disabilities, like autism or speech or language impairments, were less likely to apply to charter schools in kindergarten than students without these special needs.
- Over time, the gap in special education rates increased. However, the primary reasons charter schools enrolled a lower rate of special education students was because students in charter schools were significantly less likely to be newly classified as having a disability and were more likely to have their disability declassified compared with students in traditional public schools.
- There is not find evidence that charter schools refused to admit or pushed out students with disabilities. The study finds that more students with previous Individual Education Programs (IEPs) entered charter schools rather than exited charter schools after kindergarten.
- Students classified as special education, whether they attended charter schools or traditional public schools, were highly mobile. In both types of schools, nearly a third of students who received special education services left their schools by the fourth year in the study, but students in traditional public schools were more likely to exit.
The study’s results should give policymakers pause when considering regulations that set universal requirements that charter schools serve the same percentage of special education students as traditional public schools. The study notes:
Our results suggest that regulations focusing on students who have already enrolled in charter schools are unlikely to succeed in closing the special education gap. The growth in the gap is not primarily determined by students with IEPs leaving the charter sector. Rather, the gap grows primarily because charter school students are less likely than traditional public school students to be newly placed into special education and are more likely to have their disability declassified. Absent an increase in the percentage of students with disabilities who apply to charter schools, regulations requiring charter schools to meet certain thresholds for the percentage of their students in special education could end up forcing charter schools to push for disability diagnoses for students who otherwise would have avoided the designation.
More studies like this one are needed so we can rigorously examine the practices of charter schools and traditional public schools so that we aren’t left to speculate about why there may be differences in the percentage of special needs students enrolled in charter and traditional public schools.
Anna Nicotera is the senior director of research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.