Fielding phone calls from parents asking about enrollment is part of everyday business for schools, but for some charter schools, the person on the other end of the line may only be posing as a parent.
Modeled after “mystery” or “secret shopper” services used in retail, authorizers in the District of Columbia and Massachusetts are using a similar tactic to make sure the charter schools they oversee are not turning away students with more specialized needs, such as children with disabilities or who are still learning English.
This issue has long dogged the charter sector which nationally, some studies show, enrolls a lower percentage of students with disabilities compared to regular public schools. The discrepancy, some charter critics say, comes from the publicly funded but independently run schools turning away such students in order to improve test scores.
“We started this because there was huge a perception among the public that charters counseled out students with disabilities,” said Naomi R. DeVeaux, the deputy director for the District of Columbia’s public charter school board. “We wanted to know if this was true.”
Multiple studies show that charter schools serve a smaller share of students with disabilities than regular public schools. Several reasons are floated to explain why: charter schools counsel students out; public schools over-identify students with disabilities; or for whatever reason, parents choose not to enroll their students in charters.
One of the early major reports documenting the discrepancy in special education enrollment numbers between charters and district schools nationwide was a 2012 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. Pulling data from the 2009-10 school year, the report found that, nationally, eight percent of students enrolled in charter schools had a disability compared to 11 percent in regular public schools.Eliza Shapiro writes at Capital New York about the head of New York City Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who is visiting charter schools.
The New York Center for Autism Charter School provides specialized instruction for children with autism. And the Voice Charter School, which Fariña visited this fall, offers daily instruction in choral singing.
“I visit all schools with the same thoughts in mind: how is the school community serving the students of that particular community,” Fariña said. “Are they serving English language learners and students with special needs?”
Fariña is facing a wave of criticism from charter school advocates after she claimed some charters under-enroll English language learners and special education students, and that some charters cherry-pick high-performing students to boost test scores.
Groups like Families for Excellent Schools and the New York City Charter School Center have called upon Fariña to provide evidence backing up her claims or to retract them. F.E.S., which declined to comment for this article, will hold a rally at City Hall today demanding an apology from Fariña.
The de Blasio administration has had a troubled relationship with the city’s powerful charter school sector. De Blasio criticized charters during his mayoral campaign, singling out Success Academy C.E.O. Eva Moskowitz, whose schools Fariña has notably not visited. Spokespeople for Success did not respond to a request for comment.
De Blasio suffered a significant political blow in a losing battle against large charter networks during the spring, as the schools battled the mayor over space. During the feud, de Blasio allied himself with a coalition of independent charters, which defended the mayor’s stance on charters.