Education Research

Data Analysis Finds Charters More Inclusive for Special Ed Students

Charter schools tend to serve more students with disabilities in more inclusive settings. Nearly 85 percent of students with disabilities in charter schools attended class in general education classrooms for 80 percent or more of their day compared to 68 percent of students with disabilities in traditional public schools.

Those findings were shared in a new report produced by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS), a non-profit formed in 2013 to advocate for students with "diverse learning needs."

The organization examined public school data, including total enrollment, enrollment by student disability category, type of school, provision of special ed and related services, discipline information and school specialization from the Civil Rights Data Collection for the school year 2013-2014, the latest years for which it was available. Traditional public schools make up 83 percent of the school types in the collection, while charters make up 6 percent.

While the average enrollment of students eligible for special education was 12.52 percent nationwide, in states with charter laws, students who qualified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) made up 10.6 percent of total enrollment in charters and 12.5 percent in traditional public schools. Those who qualified for Section 504 support made up 1.8 percent of students in traditional schools and 1.9 percent in charters.

Researchers also found that while charter schools as a whole suspend a greater proportion of students overall (6.6 percent for charters vs. 5.6 percent for traditional schools)., in terms of suspension rates for students with disabilities, charter schools and traditional public schools are "somewhat similar" (12.3 percent in charters and 11.6 percent in traditionals); however, both suspend disabled students at a rate about twice as high as all students.

Deeper analysis of the data found wide variations between and within states regarding enrollment, services provided and location (such as whether the students attended general ed classes or went to "segregated settings"). A handful of states are true outliers. For example, Maine enrolled the highest proportion of students with disabilities in both traditional (17 percent) and charter schools (25 percent), whereas Texas was just the opposite, with the lowest proportion of students with disabilities in both (9 percent for traditionals and 7 percent for charters.

Also, some charters specialize almost exclusively in serving students with disabilities. The organization verified 137 such charter schools, of which 127 had data in the data collection. Those are clustered primarily in Florida, Ohio and Texas.

The overall conclusion of the report is that while students with disabilities are enrolling in charter schools, "there remains room to improve access nationwide" — and particularly in certain states and for specific disabilities.

The researchers acknowledged that the data was "more than three years old," which may not reflect the "current reality in charter schools" today. For example, recent adoption of uniform enrollment systems in cities with large shares of charters (including Denver, Newark, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.) may "significantly" improve access for kids with "a diverse range of disabilities." These systems allow parents to apply to multiple schools simultaneously with the same online application. The organization noted that it expects the release of 2015-2016 data to provide new insight into whether this type of "policy tool" will advance equal access.

The report offered numerous recommendations, including, uniquely, guidance for "private philanthropy." They advised foundations supporting charters in three ways:

  • To leverage grantmaking processes to drive equal access by tracking metrics such as enrollment and academic growth related to serving students with disabilities;
  • To identify grant metrics that reward schools demonstrating growth "for all students as opposed to absolute performance, which can serve as a disincentive to serve students with disabilities"; and
  • To offer incentives to charters to develop or adopt innovative programs that benefit students with disabilities.

The report is openly available through the NCSECS website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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