Fewer disabled students enroll in charter schools

Overall, there were lower rates of special-education enrollment at charter schools in all but eight states.

As the number of charter schools expands nationwide, one group of students that is enrolling in those schools at a lower rate is children with disabilities.

Eight percent of students at charter schools had disabilities in the 2009-10 school year, compared with 11 percent at traditional public schools, according to a Government Accountability Office report being released June 20.

The difference could be a result of several factors, including fewer parents of special-education students choosing to enroll their children, charter schools discouraging disabled students from attending, and constraints on resources making it difficult for charter schools to meet their needs, the report found.

“We know that in many instances the charter schools are breaking down all the old stereotypes about who can learn and who can’t learn, whether they’re poor or minority or students with disabilities,” said Rep. George Miller, senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “And we want to make sure that the students with disabilities get a chance to participate in that revolution, if you will, that’s taking place.”

Charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate independently of many of the laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools, have seen enormous growth over the last decade. More than 2 million students now attend charters, and the Obama administration has encouraged their expansion through initiatives like Race to the Top, the $4 billion grant competition. Many states lifted caps on the number of charter schools permitted in order to increase their chances of winning.

Advocates have praised charters for being an innovative alternative to the traditional neighborhood school, but there have been persistent concerns over accountability, access, and quality.

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The GAO report found significant disparities among states.

About 6 percent of students in New Hampshire charter schools had disabilities, for example, compared to 13 percent at the state’s traditional public schools. In Virginia, the number of special education students in charter schools was 11 percentage points higher than in traditional public schools. Overall, however, there were lower rates of special education enrollment at charters in all but eight states: Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Researchers also found there were a higher percentage of charter schools with 20 percent or more disabled students, possibly owing to an increase in the number of charters that focus solely on students with disabilities. That trend is something that has many special-education advocates concerned. They worry it will lead to increased segregation and could have a negative effect on how much disabled students learn.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said she’d like to provide schools with more assistance on special education, but said she believed the lower rates were mostly the result of parental choice.

“If they’re not selecting charter schools it’s a reflection of where parents decide to send their kids and not so much a reflection on charter schools, in my opinion,” she said.

Some charters are known among parents as “disability friendly” and have a larger pool of applicants with special needs, while those with harsher discipline policies applied to disabled students end up receiving significantly fewer, said Rodney Estvan, an education policy analyst for Access Living, an organization aimed at helping the disabled community in Chicago.

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