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Shanker Blog: Revisiting the Issue of Charter Schools and Special Education Students

One of the most common claims against charter schools is that they “push out” special education students. The basic idea is that charter operators, who are obsessed with being able to show strong test results and thus bolster their reputations and enrollment, subtlety or not-so-subtlety “counsel out” students with special education plans (or somehow discourage their enrollment).

This is, of course, a serious issue, one that is addressed directly in a recent report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which presents an analysis of data from a sample of New York City charter elementary schools (and compares them to regular public schools in the city). It is important to note that many of the primary results of this study, including those focused on the “pushing out” issue, cannot be used to draw any conclusions about charters across the nation. There were only 25 NYC charters included in that (lottery) analysis, all of them elementary schools, and these were not necessarily representative of the charter sector in the city, to say nothing of charters nationwide.

That said, the report, written by Marcus Winters, finds, among other things, that charters enroll a smaller proportion of special education students than regular public schools (as is the case elsewhere), and that this is primarily because these students are less likely to apply for entrance to charters (in this case, in kindergarten) than their regular education peers. He also presents results suggesting that this gap actually grows in later grades, mostly because of charters being less likely to classify students as having special needs, and more likely to reclassify them as not having special needs once they have been put on a special education plan (whether or not these classifications and declassifications are appropriate is of course not examined in this report).

Thus, there is a gap between these charters and NYC regular public schools in terms of special education enrollment, one which occurs largely at the point of entry. There is not, however, much indication that these particular charters are “pushing out” large numbers of students with disabilities, and there is also some evidence of inter-sectoral differences in the likelihood of classification and declassification, at least in the small sample of schools included in the analysis. To the degree there is a takeaway message here that might apply beyond NYC, it is that the mere existence of a charter/regular public school gap in special education enrollment does not tell us much about the reasons for that gap.

But this particular analysis also speaks to a couple of wider points about the issue of charters and special education students. The first is that those who accuse charter schools of pushing out special education students may not be framing their argument very well. To whatever degree some subset of charter operators are indeed attempting to bolster their results by “counseling out” students, they would presumably do so based on traits, such as low performance or behavioral issues, for which special education status is just a proxy (see this related paper).

Thus, comparisons of charter and regular public schools in terms of their special education populations are obviously worthwhile and important for a number of reasons, but, in the context of the “counseling out” issue, they are only a partial tool. Even if charter and regular public schools served equal proportions of students with special needs, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that there was no deselection based on characteristics that might be associated with different outcomes.

My second point is kind of the flip side of this argument: Even if there is a substantial gap in special education populations, it doesn’t tell us why this gap arises (this is a major feature of Winters’ analysis, which, again, focuses on explaining the reasons behind the gap). Actually, I am obliged to once again raise the possibility that the theoretical underpinnings of school choice predict that this kind of selection and deselection of students based on characteristics such as ability and behavior not only may occur, but actually is designed to occur.

The whole idea of school choice is that a “marketplace” of sorts will arise, in which schools survive or fail based on their ability to satisfy the needs of parents who are shopping for schools that are best suited for their children. Most likely, over time and as sectors grow, some of these schools will cater to traditionally “high-performing” students, others to students at lower levels or those with special needs. In a fully choice-based system, we might therefore expect some segregation of students based on these traits. In fact, if you believe the choice theory, we might actually want that segregation, as it would signal that parents are making informed choices.

Unfortunately, in our obsessively test-based accountability education culture, with its crude measures that conflate student and school performance, there is little incentive to cater to lower-performing student populations, not only because of the risk they pose in terms of low test scores, but also because doing so can be extraordinarily expensive – involving more intensive interventions and much more instructional time than is the norm.

It’s therefore not surprising that some schools might react by trying to minimize their costs and maximize results. If, however, you buy the choice theory, and if these financial and measurement issues were somehow addressed, over time, you would expect to see the emergence of more and more schools that were tailored to meet the specific needs of students with low test scores and/or behavioral issues.

So, just as charter opponents may be missing the point by focusing on special education proportions, supporters may also be oversimplifying their positions by implying that charter schools are supposed to be “general practitioners” that can serve all students equally well, regardless of their characteristics. Specialization is an inherent part of the choice paradigm.

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Matthew Di Carlo

Matthew Di Carlo is a senior research fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. His current research focuses mostly on education polic...