New Report From the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools: How Does Enrollment of Students with Disabilities Vary Between the Sectors?

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS), a non-profit started in 2013 to address the challenges associated of providing high-quality access and supports to students with disabilities enrolled in charters, has a new report that went live this morning. “Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: A Secondary Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection” examines the last five years for trends on enrollment, discipline, inclusion, and placement with a particular focus on gender and race. The conclusions in the report may surprise those accustomed to the usual tropes of charters “cherry-picking” non-disabled students and/or rejecting them for admission in the first place. In fact, while there’s more work to do, more parents than ever are choosing charter schools as the best option for their special needs children. 

Here are a few highlights.

  • According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, 12.84% of traditional school students have disabilities while 10.79% of charter school students have disabilities. The percentage of students who qualify for Section 504 accommodations is about the same in both traditional and charter schools. 
  • Percentages vary by state: For example, charter schools in Iowa enrolled students with disabilities at the highest rate in the country (20.49%) while traditional schools in Massachusetts enrolled students with disabilities at the highest rate (17.33%). In nine states there are more students with disabilities enrolled in charters than traditionals:  Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah,and Virginia.
  • New Jersey is one of four states (the others are Wyoming, Delaware, and Missouri) where traditional school enroll at least five percent more students with disabilities than charter schools. The report notes that “traditional public schools frequently develop specialized programs within a larger school, school district, or wholly separate schools for students who require more significant support, and, consequently, schools that operate these programs may have a larger proportion of students with disabilities.”
  • Classifications vary between charter and traditional schools. Charters enroll a higher percentage of students classified with a specific learning disability (the most common classification across America), students classified with autism, and students classified as emotionally-disturbed. Conversely, charters enroll fewer students who are classified with developmental delays, multiple disabilities, and intellectual disabilities. Rates are about the same for charter and traditional schools for classifications of speech/language impairments, other health impairments, orthopedic impairments, hearing or visual impairments, and traumatic brain injury.
  • Charters enroll disproportionate numbers of Black and Hispanic students. (New Jersey is a typical example, with charters clustered in cities like Newark and Camden where almost all students are of color.) Nationally, 28.4% of students in charters are Black, compared to 14.6% in traditional schools; in charters 32.7 percent of students are white, compared to about 50% in traditional schools.
  • Best practices for students with disabilities maximize the amount of time spent with typical peers. In general, “charter schools report a larger percentage of students with disabilities (84.27%) spending 80% or more of their time in the regular education classroom than traditional public schools (68.09%).”
  • Students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as students without disabilities in public schools. Across the country, 11.3% of student with disabilities are suspended in traditional schools; 11.8% of students with disabilities are suspended in charters. (The percentage of students suspended at charters rises to 12.27% when virtual charters are included.

“While there are numerous factors that influence the ability of all public schools to serve students with disabilities,” says NCSECS’s Executive Director Lauren Morando Rhim, “our analysis finds that while charter schools are making progress, they can do better. More parents of students with disabilities than ever are choosing charter schools, whichis a positive sign and we believe charter schools can drive effective change so that all schools are able to provide families with the quality education, services, and supports they deserve and need.”

For more information and Jersey-specific context, see my interview with Mark Rynone, head of the  New Jersey Special Education Collaborative, part of NCSECS here and a guest post from Mark here. For a look at KIPP NJ’s special education programming — specifically, my profile of Jared Teel-Drayton, a KIPP student Newark diagnosed with autism — see here. For a profile of Ayonna, a Camden Prep student (part of the Uncommon Schools network) who was classified as “emotionally-disturbed” at her traditional school but is thriving in her charter, see here.

What do you think?

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