New study questions special-education quotas for charters

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the gap that persists between charter schools and school districts when it comes to educating students with special needs. Today, CRPE has released a new report that challenges the assertion that charters are “pushing” away special-education students and questions laws that ultimately force charters to enroll more students with learning disabilities.

CRPE asked Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from the New York City Department of Education and from New York City charter schools to help explain why there are fewer special-education students enrolled at charters. New York charters are important because the state legislature three years ago passed a law that required charters to enroll a higher share of special-education children—or at least mirror the special-education enrollments at district schools.

Just as CRPE before found more nuance in the special-education gap between charters and school districts, Winters unearthed facts that should prompt New York lawmakers to reconsider their rash decision to rush enrollment quotas into law.

Specifically, Winters found the following:

  • Parents of Kindergarten-age students with disabilities—especially those with autism and speech impairments—are less likely to apply to charter schools in the first place. This is the primary driver of the gap, Winter says. Perhaps these families see better opportunities for their young, learning-disabled children in school districts. Regardless, Winters concludes aptly, “It is difficult to hold [charter schools] accountable for the free choice of individuals deciding whether or not to apply to the charter sector.”
  • Secondly, charter schools are less likely to say that students need special-education services, and they’re more likely to declassify students who are “special needs.” In fact, when it comes to more severe categories of special education—those that allow for little wiggle room when it comes to writing an Individualized Education Program (IEP)—rates of special-education classification are similar to charters and district schools over time. When it comes to milder disabilities, however, district schools are more likely to direct children to special education, often through subjective evaluations.
  • Also, special-education students are transient, whether they attend charter schools or not. Fewer than a third of charter school students who receive special-education services leave their school by their fourth year of attendance, but more than a third of traditional public school students leave by their fourth year.
  • Lastly, more students in general education are leaving districts for charter schools, and that has the effect of skewing the special-education percentages in each sector. More special-education students are staying in school districts, while more general-education students are enrolling in charters.

The point is that any one of these findings is enough to question the validity of special-education quotas. And while Winters restricted his study to New York, and we therefore can’t generalize his findings more broadly, New York is the state that is forcing charters to change factors it can’t control or influencing these schools to label kids as “special needs” when they otherwise wouldn’t have. This study should be enough to stop other states from adopting a similar approach.

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