To hear tell from charter opponents, students with disabilities and charters don’t mix. Their story about charters and special-needs students is simple: Charter schools don’t enroll many students with disabilities. When they do, they are more likely to kick them out than traditional public schools. This is because they can’t serve them well.
But a new report analyzing federal data says otherwise. As of the 2014 school year, about 10 percent of students in U.S. charter schools were eligible for special education services, compared to about 12.5 percent in public schools—not a huge gap.
And charter schools were more likely to serve their special education students in the regular classroom, complying with federal law that specifies students with special needs should have those needs met in the “least restrictive environment.”
About 84 percent of charter students receiving special education services spent most of their day in regular classrooms, compared with 68 percent of students receiving special education services in traditional public schools.
The study was published in late February by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, an independent nonprofit founded to ensure diverse learners can access and thrive in charter schools. Their analysis was based on the most recent data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which tracks enrollment, service provision and discipline data for students in special education.
‘Some Kids Are Simply Disciplined More,’ No Matter the School Setting
As for discipline, students in special education continue to face disproportionate discipline in both charters and traditional public schools. Both traditional and charter public schools suspend and expel students with disabilities at rates roughly twice that of their students overall. While both sectors have decreased their use of suspensions for all students, traditional public schools have made slightly bigger strides in reducing suspensions.
However, charter schools have made slightly more progress in reducing expulsions. Although the amount of change is small, between 2012 and 2014 the expulsion gap between general and special education students narrowed slightly in charter schools and widened slightly in public schools.
“The most recent release of the [civil rights data] confirms that some kids are simply disciplined more,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. “We must continue to track data and examine policies that may be contributing to this. We can’t teach students if we have excluded them from school.”
Charter Schools Are Succeeding With Diverse Learners
As to the argument that charter schools can’t serve special education students well, Morando Rhim was quick to differ. “There are lots of schools that are having great success with students with disabilities,” she noted, offering the Paramount School of Excellence, a charter school in Indianapolis, as an example.
Paramount enrolls 700 students, 18 percent of whom have been identified with disabilities that qualify them for special education services. In 2016, only 29 percent of special education students in the Indiana Public Schools met state reading standards; at Paramount, 60 percent did.
Rhim’s organization is developing five more case studies of other schools with similar results. “These schools are having success not just enrolling, but helping students make strong academic gains,” she said.