Charters Should Be Expected to Serve All Kinds of Students

Charter schools nationally serve far fewer students with disabilities—8 to 10 percent of their students on average—than district schools, which serve 13.1 percent. Some state funding formulas encourage charter schools to enroll students with disabilities, while in other states there are clear financial disincentives. In a few states, expenses for special education delivered by charter schools are paid by the local districts, or the services are delivered by special education teachers employed by the district. As a result, enrollment figures vary widely from state to state. On average, however, the disabled students charter schools enroll tend to have disabilities that are less severe and less costly to remediate than those of students in district schools.

Yet charter schools are public schools, supported by taxpayers and considered open to all students. If they market and recruit broadly from their communities, their population of students with disabilities should be comparable to that of district schools. But it isn’t. Why not?

Some charter school officials have suggested that official records undercount their enrollments of disabled students, because the parents of some students who would qualify as “disabled” have deliberately avoided the label or even obscured its previous use. Research evidence to support this hypothesis is limited, but it deserves further investigation.

State evaluation reports and other research have shown that most charter schools do not actively market to or recruit students with disabilities and their families. The 50 to 60 U.S. charter schools that focus primarily or exclusively on children with disabilities and do actively recruit them are the exception.

Some families might consciously choose against sending their children with disabilities to charter schools. Charter schools are expanding their reliance on scripted instruction, which is less viable for students with disabilities, who benefit from more student-centered approaches. The expansion of networks of college-prep-oriented charter schools, which do not aim to serve a broad population of students, may also indicate to parents that charter schools are not the right choice for their disabled children.

There is considerable evidence that charter schools actively discourage families from enrolling disabled children and counsel them to leave when they do manage to enroll. The largest study on this topic was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, with the report published in 2000. That study found a pattern of charter schools systematically counseling out students with disabilities rather than making accommodations and providing the required services and supports; administrators at one-fourth of the charter schools in the study reported having advised parents that the school was not a good fit for their disabled children.

While conducting nine evaluations of charter school reforms for state education agencies between 1997 and 2007, I learned of numerous cases in which families were counseled out and told that it would be some time before the charter school could offer special education supports. Parents can fight—and some do—but these parents are already overextended and tired.

Charter schools might understandably find it challenging to accommodate students with disabilities. Special education and charter schools would not seem to mix easily: charter schools were designed as deregulated and autonomous schools; special education is the most highly regulated component of public education, subject to state as well as federal oversight.

Charter schools lack economies of scale. School districts, with their larger numbers of students with disabilities, can distribute special education staff more efficiently and can concentrate some services at specific schools rather than provide all services at all schools. Districts spend a lower percentage of their total revenues on administration than charter schools do but still have larger central administrations that can more efficiently deal with special education’s extensive regulation. Charter schools, meanwhile, may find it especially difficult to recruit special education teachers, especially if they only wish to employ them part time.

Still, charter schools ought to enroll more students with disabilities, for several reasons:

Charter schools are public schools, required and expected to serve all families who seek them out. Regardless of where they are enrolled, children with disabilities are protected by the same federal laws and regulations guaranteeing a free and public education delivered in the least restrictive environment.

Charter schools that do not serve special needs students also can place unfair burdens on district schools. College-prep-oriented charter schools with selective entry and exit processes leave surrounding district schools with higher-than-expected concentrations of students requiring additional resources: students with disabilities, particularly moderate to severe disabilities; English language learners; and students with disciplinary problems or those who could not handle the rigor of the college-prep charter schools. With special education already not fully funded, the burden on district schools is that much greater.

Requiring charter schools to enroll more students with disabilities would benefit society and charter schools alike.

First, having special education staff in charter schools will make these schools more accommodating for every student. The presence of special education teachers can help balance and complement the teacher corps. Furthermore, practices developed for special education students over the years have proven helpful for nondisabled students as well.

Second, repeated studies, including two national studies conducted in 2010 by the Civil Rights Project and the National Education Policy Center, have shown charter schools are accelerating the resegregation of public schools by race and ethnicity, social class, language of instruction, and special education status. By serving more diverse populations, charter schools would enrich the experience of all their students, exposing them to the diverse range of people in our communities and thus better preparing them for both work and citizenship. After all, nearly everyone at some time will require special attention or supports due to disabilities, illness, or emotional duress. Disability is not an issue that should separate us.

Third, charter schools could find it in their best interest to enroll more students with disabilities: it would qualify them for additional public revenue and allow the schools to hire additional special education teachers. Several studies have confirmed that, on average, charter schools receive 20 to 23 percent less in public revenues than traditional public schools, leading charter school advocates to complain that charter schools are shortchanged. In a 2010 study for the National Education Policy Center, however, I found that most of the difference reflects the district schools’ higher spending on special education and student support services—spending made possible because those schools qualified for categorical funding based on the number of children with disabilities served and the costs for remediating their particular disabilities.

Charter school leaders who believe charter schools should receive equal funding ought to be willing to recruit and enroll their fair share of students with special needs. Policymakers can help by fully funding special education so that charter schools might be more willing to take on this responsibility. Charter school networks and authorizers can facilitate collaboration among charter schools to share special education staff and more efficiently distribute these human resources. The federal government should update its guidance on civil rights regulations for charter schools and include provisions to promote diverse or inclusive student bodies. State education agencies and charter authorizers can also support inclusion of students with disabilities by requiring—or giving preference to—charter applications with diversity considerations. At a minimum, however, it’s time to expect charter schools to live up to the premise under which they were established, as alternatives within the public school system, by requiring them to recruit from all segments of the community, including the special education population.

This article is part of a forum on special education in charter schools. For another take, please see “The Key Is Innovation, Not Regulation,” by Robin J. Lake, or “School Quality Matters Most, Whether District or Charter,” by Pedro A. Noguera.

This article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Lake, R.J., Miron, G., and Noguera, P.A. (2014). Should Charter Schools More Special Education: The key is innovation, not regulation. Education Next, 14(4), 54-61.

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