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.

Harlem Children’s Zone: Geoffrey Canada’s Efforts to Break Generational Poverty from the Start

This post is part of this month’s “What’s Going Right in Public Education” series, highlighting achievements and forward-thinking ideas happening now in education policy, law, and practice.

A great deal of today’s knowledge on the benefits of early childhood education stems from a research project commenced nearly fifty years ago in a small Michigan town called Ypsilanti.

The Perry Preschool Project, developed by a school administrator named David Weikart, examines the lives of 123 African Americans born into poverty in the late 1950s that were “at high risk of failing school”:

From 1962–1967, at ages 3 and 4, the subjects were randomly divided into a program group that received a high-quality preschool program based on HighScope’s participatory learning approach and a comparison group who received no preschool program. In the study’s most recent phase, 97% of the study participants still living were interviewed at age 40. Additional data were gathered from the subjects’ school, social services, and arrest records.

The preschool program had an academic focus, aiming to teach low-income students some of the basic skills needed for success in the early grades. Teachers also focused on the students’ cognitive development. Students in the “preschool” group were active participants in their education. The study is innovative because it is still yielding data; every few years, researchers interview and track down data about the program’s participants. At age 40, the contrast between the “non-preschool” and “preschool” groups is staggering (see graph below).

Source: HighScope (

HighScope has also put together an excellent video and a comprehensive report about their research results for their Perry Preschool Project participants through age 40. For those interested, the HighScope website has a wealth of detail about the lives of the participants. In sum, the results show that participants in the “preschool” program group have performed better throughout their formal education, have made more money at work, and have had more stable family lives.

Why is all of this important? Despite these stunningly clear findings, legislatures across the country still don’t establish and fund proper early childhood programs. Programs like those studied in the Perry Preschool Project can help low-income students compete with their more affluent peers if the support continues throughout their education. In 1965, the federal government allocated Head Start funding for states. However, the recent economic downturn made abundantly clear that pre-kindergarten and early childhood education programs are often the first programs to be cut. Pre-K and similar programs are often seen as “optional.” Families in some cities are even having difficulty enrolling their children in kindergarten programs, which are considered optional under the law in many states (including Texas).

In 1997, Geoffrey Canada took matters into his own hands. He founded Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), an organization that pulls together all of the educational and social services that could help low-income families in one Harlem neighborhood. Canada’s program, the focus of the recent documentary Waiting for Superman and Paul Tough’s book Whatever It Takes, serves families inside a 97-block Harlem neighborhood (called a “promise neighborhood”). The premise of HCZ is that kids born into poverty need support from cradle-to-college (and beyond). Therefore, HCZ focuses on the entire family and all of the issues that burden the typical low-income communities. HCZ’s “umbrella” services start at birth and go above and beyond any traditional educational program.

Since founding Harlem Children’s Zone in 1997, Canada has started charter schools in his Harlem neighborhood. However, he also serves families whose children attend other area schools (as long as they are in the 97-block radius). David Brooks has written in the NY Times about the dramatic gains achieved by students attending HCZ schools and/or receiving HCZ services:

Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas — reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.

Geoffrey Canada has found an approach to educating low-income students that works. Canada has found a way to break the cycle of poverty.

The most impressive part of Canada’s story is that much of his funding comes from private sources. Canada’s groundbreaking success has come without endless amounts of taxpayer dollars funding his program.

Now, Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone has finally started to catch the attention of national policymakers. Several years ago, President Obama approved grants for 20 cities to establish “promise neighborhoods” in areas with especially high-need. Neighborhood Centers, Inc. has led Houston’s “promise neighborhood” in a 3.7 square mile section of the Gulfton area. Results from Houston’s “promise neighborhood” are starting to trickle in, and it looks good for kids involved with the program.