At the Manhattan Institute, Marcus Winters has a new report titled Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools
- The gap in special education enrollment exists primarily because students with disabilities—particularly those with autism or who have a speech or language impairment—are less likely to apply to charter schools in kindergarten than are regular enrollment students.
- The gap in special education rates between charter and traditional public schools grows considerably as students progress from kindergarten through third grade. A large part (80 percent) of the growth in this gap over time is that charter schools are less likely than district schools to classify students as in need of special education services and more likely to declassify them.
- The other 20 percent of the growth in the gap of special education rates is explained by students transferring between charter and district schools.
- Surprisingly, the results do not suggest that charter schools are refusing to admit or are pushing out students with special needs. In fact, more students with previously identified disabilities enter charter schools than exit them as they progress through elementary grade levels. The 20 percent growth in the gap is driven by greater proportions of general education students entering charter schools between kindergarten and third grade, which has the effect of reducing the total proportion of students with special needs compared to the total number of students. In other words, the gap increases because the number of regular enrollment students in charter schools goes up as new students enroll, not because the number of students with disabilities goes down.
- The growth in the special education gap between charter and traditional public schools occurs mostly in what could be considered the most subjective categories of student disabilities: emotional disability and specific learning disability. By far, the most substantial growth in the special education gap occurs in the least severe category, that of specific learning disability. Rates of classification in what might be considered the more severe (and less subjective) categories of special education—autism, speech or language impairment, or intellectual disability—remain quite similar in charter and traditional public schools over time.
Overall, the results of these findings, at least for this sample of schools, suggest that a significant portion of the special education gap occurs when children enter kindergarten. For whatever reason, students with identified disabilities (particularly students with autism and those with a speech or language impairment) are less likely to enroll in charter schools. We cannot discern the reasons for their parents’ choices in a statistical analysis alone, and the issue deserves further study. It may be, for example, that these students were enrolled in specialized pre-school programs that feed into district elementary schools. It is also possible that the parents didn’t view charter schools as an appropriate fit for their child, either because of their own assumptions or because they were discouraged from applying by counselors or by charter school staff.
- There is great mobility among special education students regardless of whether they attend a charter or traditional public school. Nearly a third of charter school students who receive special education services leave the charter school by the fourth year of attendance. However, more than a third of traditional public school students who receive special education services leave their traditional public school before the fourth year of attendance.
Once a student enrolls in a charter school, the primary driver of the special education gap occurs because charter school students are significantly less likely to be newly classified as having a disability and are far more likely to have their IEP declassified than is the case in the traditional public school sector.
These results suggest that recent attempts to address the special education gap through legislated special education enrollment targets for charter schools are unlikely to yield meaningful results and could prove harmful to students. Regulations requiring charter schools to meet certain thresholds for the percentage of their students in special education could have the impact of forcing charter schools to push for a disability diagnosis for students who otherwise would have avoided the designation. Charter schools should be encouraged to recruit such students.