GAO: Charter Schools Enroll Less Students with Special Needs

The Government Accountability Office released a new report, at the request of Congressman George Miller (D-CA), that found that charter schools around the country enroll less students with special needs than traditional public schools.

GAO researchers focused on three questions:

  1. How do enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools compare, and what is known about the factors that may contribute to any differences?
  2. How do charter schools reach out to students with disabilities and what special education services do charter schools provide?
  3. What role do education, state educational agencies, and other entities that oversee charter schools play in ensuring students with disabilities have access to charter schools?

Here’s what the GAO found:

Charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, but little is known about the factors contributing to these differences. In school year 2009-2010, which was the most recent data available at the time of our review, approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools.

GAO also found that, relative to traditional public schools, the proportion of charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was lower overall. Specifically, students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of traditional public schools. However, when compared to traditional public schools, a higher percentage of charter schools enrolled more than 20 percent of students with disabilities.

Several factors may help explain why enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools differ, but the information is anecdotal. For example, charter schools are schools of choice, so enrollment levels may differ because fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools. In addition, some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling. Further, in certain instances, traditional public school districts play a role in the placement of students with disabilities in charter schools. In these instances, while charter schools participate in the placement process, they do not always make the final placement decisions for students with disabilities. Finally, charter schools’ resources may be constrained, making it difficult to meet the needs of students with more severe disabilities.

Most of the 13 charter schools GAO visited publicized and offered special education services, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities. Most charter school officials said they publicized the availability of special education services in several ways, including fliers and placing ads in the local newspaper. Many charter schools GAO visited also reported tailoring special education services to individuals’ needs, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities due to insufficient resources. About half of the charter school officials GAO interviewed cited insufficient resources, including limited space, as a challenge.

COPAA has additional coverage. And one blogger noted that the report’s release was “exquisitely timed” because it coincided with the national charter school conference in Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t give any substantive coverage to why students with special needs may be underrepresented in charter schools. Without that evidence, little can be done to remedy the problem. A heated debate between pro-charter school and pro-special education advocates likely will do little to push the issue forward without hard proof of what is causing the disparity.

Alex Hunt

About Alex Hunt

Alex Hunt is a former Yale & Irene Rosenberg Graduate Fellow at the Center for Children, Law & Policy. Alex graduated from the University of Texas in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in government. Before entering law school, he taught middle school math at YES Prep Southwest in Houston with Teach For America. In 2010, he received New Leaders' EPIC Spotlight Teacher Award, a national award for teachers with outstanding student growth. Alex graduated cum laude from the University of Houston Law Center in May 2013. During law school, Alex was Casenotes & Comments Editor for the Houston Journal of International Law, interned for both state and federal judges, and served as Vice President of the Health Law Organization (HLO). In addition, Alex has received the Irving J. Weiner Memorial Scholarship Award (for a year of outstanding work in the UH Law Center Legal Clinic), the Napoleon Beazley Defender Award (for outstanding work on behalf of children), the Ann Dinsmore Forman Memorial Child Advocacy Award, the Mont P. Hoyt Memorial Writing Award for an Outstanding Comment on a Topic in International Law, and he was a finalist for Texas Access to Justice's Law Student Pro Bono Award. Alex is currently in private family law practice with the Hunt Law Firm, P.L.L.C. in Katy, Texas.

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