Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New study suggests charter schools may not systematically under-enroll students with special needs

A fresh examination of special education enrollment patterns in New York State suggests that charter schools may be doing better at enrolling students with special needs than many believe.

The issue arises in part from a federal General Accounting Office (GAO) report that said, at the national level, charter schools enroll fewer students with special needs than schools run by districts.

In the aggregate that may be true; but new research comparing New York State’s district-run schools with charter schools finds important variations in the enrollment patterns of students with special needs. The study, conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and commissioned by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), looked at special education enrollment in individual schools, grade levels, neighborhoods, and in the portfolios of schools under different authorizers to present a more accurate picture.

“Although certainly some charter schools are not meeting their responsibilities in special education, our data indicate that the simplest explanation—that charters don't want to serve these kids and are sending them away—is not really a good characterization of the story,” said Robin Lake, Director at CRPE.

CRPE’s study, New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis, uncovered these key findings on the question of whether charter schools under-enroll students with special needs:

  • At the middle and high school levels, the average enrollment figures are actually higher in charter schools than in district-run schools and the distribution and range are almost indistinguishable.
  • A marked difference in special education student enrollments, however, does appear when charter elementary schools are compared with their district-run counterparts.
  • While some authorizers oversee schools with special needs enrollments that “closely track those of nearby district-run schools, other authorizers oversee groups of schools that don’t mirror” the special education enrollments of their district-run neighbors.

The report demonstrates a need for more research and a better understanding of enrollment data for students with special needs in order to explain the differences uncovered by the analysis. Part of the difference in elementary schools may be that some district-run schools offer programs that attract more students with special needs.

Charter schools at the elementary level might also be less inclined to label students as needing special education services. This raises a troubling question: are charter schools under-enrolling or under-identifying students with special needs, or are district-run schools over-identifying them?

The authors point out that there likely are access and quality issues that need to be addressed in charter schools, but policy solutions need to recognize the complexity of the issues. For example, the research indicates that setting statewide special education enrollment targets may be less effective than school or regional targets that pay careful attention to those very specific factors that influence such enrollment choices as locations, grade-spans, and neighborhoods. Moreover, explicit efforts to develop charter school programs that better address the needs of special education students might more effectively increase enrollment and improve the quality of service for these students than simply setting a target.

“This report underscores the need to understand these issues more deeply,“ said Alex Medler, Vice President of Policy at NACSA. “To ensure all students have equal access to charter schools and are well served by them, we need to understand all the possible obstacles, and what the schools, their authorizers, and the surrounding districts can do to make that a reality.”

Robin Lake, Betheny Gross, and Patrick Denice authored the report.