New Report Provides Insights into Special Education Services in Charter Schools

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Recently the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) released a report, Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: A Secondary Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection 2011–2012, which compares crucial aspects of special education services in charter and district-run public schools. This analysis provides much needed information on the provision of special education services in the growing charter school field, and the findings reverse many misconceptions about students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools.

The report uses data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2011-12 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC)—the most recent and comprehensive data set on U.S. public schools—to explore patterns in enrollment, placement, specialization, and discipline of special education services in all public schools.

To start with the enrollment basics, NCSECS found that across all public schools, 12.5 percent of students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). On average, students receiving special education services comprised 10.4 percent of total charter school enrollment and 12.6 percent of traditional school enrollment. The difference in the percentage of students with disabilities served by district-run and charter schools had been decreasing over time, dropping from 3.6 percent in 2008-09 to the most recent 2.1 percent difference in 2011-12. Many complicating factors contribute to the enrollment difference, including subjective decisions around identifying a student for special education services, over-identifying students for special education—especially if there is an incentive in the state funding system to do so, and student mobility rates.

U.S. federal law requires that students with disabilities are guaranteed the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (meaning time spent in the regular classroom) in every public school. NCSECS found that “84 percent of students with disabilities in charter schools were in the general education classroom for 80 percent or more of the day, compared to 67 percent of students with disabilities in traditional public schools.”

Finally, NCSECS identified 115 charter schools across the country that used their autonomy to create school models designed to primarily serve students with disabilities. These specialized schools either enrolled at least 25 percent of students with disabilities and self-identified as “special education schools,” or reported that 50 percent of more of their students qualified for special education services. The majority of these specialized schools (57 percent) had a specific focus on services addressing two or more disabilities.

While the CRDC data analysis revealed good news for charter schools in terms of enrollment, classroom environment, and instructional models, discipline practices are an area for improvement for both charter and district-run public schools. NCSECS found that both school models suspended and expelled students with disabilities at a rate higher than the average suspension rate for all students. While NCSECS notes that all public schools disproportionately discipline students with disabilities, the CRDC data also “challenge perceptions that charter schools discipline students with disabilities notably more than traditional district schools.”

The report sheds light on many trends in special education services and provides baseline data so that both charter and district-run schools can continue to improve the access and quality of special education services to provide the best education to all students.