Fewer disabled students enroll in charter schools

“We see very little evidence at this point that the schools are simply refusing to enroll these kids,” he said. “But we do see schools where after the kid is there for a year or two, there is a counseling-out process.”

Raquel Regalado, a member of the Miami-Dade school board, which oversees the nation’s fourth largest school district, said the charter school where she enrolled her daughter for kindergarten refused to let her child attend after she was diagnosed with autism. She’s said she’s heard from many parents with similar stories.

“The problem was they didn’t want to open the door to other special needs children,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Education is conducting five compliance reviews regarding special education students and charter schools, and has received 263 complaints over the last three years. The investigations look at recruitment and equal opportunity access, among other areas. The department plans to issue new guidance on special education at charters soon.

“The guidance issued by the last administration is still good law in lots of cases,” said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, referring to the Bush administration. “Some of it is outdated given the burgeoning charter movement.”

Several academic experts who study charter schools said the figures reported by the federal report were in line with what they expected to see.

“I think it reveals one of the things charter schools have to address and take seriously if they’re to make a persuasive argument that they are for all kids,” said Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

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Knowles noted that some charters work hard not to designate students as special needs, which in some cases is positive, as there is evidence certain groups, such as African American boys, have been disproportionately labeled as special-needs students when in fact they are not. In other cases, there might be students who need extra services but are not getting them.

Regalado, whose daughter is now enrolled in a traditional school, said the burden lies with local and state authorities to increase accountability, and with charters to put more resources toward special education.

“This excuse that the charter can’t do it because they’re too small or it’s one institution … you look at the corporate makeup and you look at their reserves and you know that simply isn’t the case, and that they’re taking advantage of the system,” she said.

The GAO report recommends Education Secretary Arne Duncan take measures to help charters recognize practices that could affect the enrollment of disabled students by updating existing guidance.

“This is a little bit of a wake-up call, a reminder that there’s more to be done here,” Miller said, “but I think the help can be provided on both sides of the ledger.”

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