Charter schools shortchanging disabled students? Not so fast, new report says

Charter school critics got a lot of mileage from a U.S. Government Accounting Office report last summer that found charter schools enrolled fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. But a new report (hat tip: EdWeek) offers even more reason why we should all take a more careful look before leaping to conclusions.

The Center for Reinventing Public Education found the numbers for middle and high schools in New York state were on par between the two sectors. And while fewer students with disabilities were enrolling in charter elementary schools, that didn’t mean discrimination. Wrote the center:

The fact that only charter elementary schools systematically enroll lower proportions of students with disabilities than their district-run counterparts calls into question whether discrimination drives lower enrollment. There is no obvious reason to think that charter elementary leaders would be more likely to discriminate than charter middle and high school leaders. Indeed, the fact that state testing does not begin until the third grade suggests that elementary schools have arguably the weakest incentives to discriminate against students with disabilities. The grade-span differences highlight a need to examine what is different about the policies and practices of special education and the preferences of parents with students with disabilities at the elementary grades versus the upper grades. Many causes other than discrimination could be affecting enrollment.

It may be that charter schools are simply less likely to identify students as having disabilities that qualify them for special education in the first place, or that specialized preschool programs with designated district feeder schools lead parents to opt for the district school over the charter school. Or it may be that federally mandated district counseling for families of kids with disabilities creates opportunities for the district to encourage these families to stay in district-run schools, whereas non–special education students’ families never get such advice. None of these potential contributors to elementary level underenrollment in charter schools have been explored sufficiently, if at all.

The GAO report was written about widely, from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to outlets in Florida. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of coverage the new report gets.

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