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Charter Schools Do Not Appear to Discriminate Against Special Education Students
Students with disabilities more likely to remain in charters than in district schools

Is there a special education gap between public charter schools and district schools?  Like district schools, public charters are legally required to educate all students regardless of the difficulties they bring with them. Still, many say that charter schools have discriminatory admissions policies and encourage those in need of special education to change schools.  For example, New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña, recently implied that the city’s charter schools remove low-performing students in order to increase their aggregate test scores.

Now, in a new article appearing in the Fall 2015 issue of Education Next, Marcus Winters finds that “as critics have claimed, there is in fact a special education gap,” but there is no evidence that “charter schools are driving special education students away from their doors.”

Winters looks at data on all elementary-school students in certain years from New York City’s and Denver’s charter and district schools. His analysis reveals that “the enrollment of students with severe disabilities accounts for very little of the gap, as there are very few of these students” in either charter or district-operated schools. Instead, the gap begins primarily because of differences in enrollment rates of students who have a speech or language disability, many of whom receive services within district schools prior to kindergarten. The gap grows as they progress through school primarily because of differences in the proportion of students classified as having a Specific Learning Disability (SLD), which he reports is for most students a relatively mild and subjectively diagnosed disability.

The study also shows that students with disabilities are less likely to exit charter elementary schools than they are to exit district elementary schools. For example, in Denver four years after entry in kindergarten, 65 percent of students with IEPs remain in their original charter school, compared to 37 percent of students who begin in a district school. In New York City, four years after entry in kindergarten, 74 percent of students with IEPs remain in their original charter school, compared to 69 percent of students who begin in a district school.

Winters notes that the special education gap in kindergarten is much smaller in Denver than in New York City, possibly because Denver uses a universal enrollment system in which charter schools participate, while in New York City families must apply to individual charter schools.

Winters suggests that policymakers could influence the special education gap by providing charters with resources and incentives to better recruit students with speech or language impairments in their kindergarten year. Meanwhile, policies that focus on stopping charter schools from “counseling out” student with disabilities are unlikely to be effective because they do not address the factors that are truly underlying the gap.

The Myth About the Special Education Gap:  Charter enrollments driven by parental choices, not discriminatory policies,” by Marcus A. Winters will appear in the Fall 2015 Issue of Education Next.

About the Author

Marcus A. Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit:

Last updated July 21, 2015