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.

Congress Should Pass the Keeping All Students Safe Act

Tens of thousands of students with special needs attend schools around the country every day. Laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act aim to make these students’ public school experiences free and appropriate.

However, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities often still face unequal treatment at school. Last month, a U.S. Department of Education report was released that showed that students that qualify for special education services are subject to physical restraint and seclusion at rates far higher than the general student population. The report shows, “Students with disabilities (under the IDEA and Section 504 statutes) represent 12% of students in the sample, but nearly 70% of the students who are physically restrained by adults in their schools.”

In addition, a 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found unnecessary seclusion and restraint has caused significant psychological and physical injuries to thousands of students across the country. The study also found that over 200 students have died from unnecessary seclusion and restraints over a five-year period.

The Need for a Federal Law

The disparity in treatment between the general student population and students receiving special education services prompted Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller to file legislation seeking to ban unnecessary restraint and seclusion of students. Rep. Miller’s HR 1381 is currently in the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Sen. Harkin’s S.2010 is currently sitting in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Both bills would establish a national standard that physical restraint is only acceptable in scenarios where there is an immediate threat of physical harm.

Rep. Miller’s and Sen. Harkin’s bills have similar purposes and provisions. Sen. Harkin’s bill would:

  • Prohibit the use of seclusion in locked and unattended rooms or enclosures
  • Prohibit the use of mechanical and chemical restraints and physical restraints that restrict breathing
  • Prohibit aversive behavioral interventions that compromise health and safety
  • Prohibit the use of physical restraints except for emergency situations
  • Prohibit the use of physical restraints that inhibit a student’s primary means of communication
  • Prohibit the use of seclusions and/or restraints in a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) or any other behavioral plan
  • Call for states to promote preventative programming to reduce the use of restraints
  • Call for states to collect data on the occurrence of seclusions and restraints
  • Call for schools to conduct a debriefing with parents and staff after a restraint is used and plan for positive behavioral interventions that will prevent the use of restraints with the student in the future
  • Establish a state grant program to enhance the State’s ability to promote, within its LEAs, preventative programming and training for school personnel

However, at least one group is not on board with the new legislation. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) opposes the Act. Last month, AASA produced a report entitled, “Keeping Schools Safe: How Seclusion and Restraint Protects Students and School Personnel.” As the title indicates, the report outlines a number of reasons why responsible use of restraint and seclusion can protect the physical wellbeing of teachers and students.

The problem, however, is that many teachers and administrators are not trained in proper methods, and often improperly restrain students. Improper implementation of restraints can psychologically damage, physically injure, or kill a student. The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) has responded to each of ASAA’s findings.

Current Law in Texas

Texas is one of only 14 states that limits the use of restraints to physical safety emergencies.

Texas Education Code Section 37.0021 states: “A student with a disability who receives special education services…may not be confined in a locked box, locked closet, or other specially designed locked space as either a discipline management practice or a behavior management technique.”

The Code defines “seclusion” as confining a student in a locked box, closet or room that is designed solely to exclude a person AND is less than 50 square feet of space. Therefore, locking a student in a space larger than 50 square feet cannot qualify as seclusion. The Code prohibits school district employees from placing a student in “seclusion.” There are exceptions for situations when a student has a weapon or when seclusion is court-ordered.

The Code delineates between “seclusion” and “time-out.” A time-out is defined as, “a behavior management technique in which, to provide a student with an opportunity to regain self-control, the student is separated from other students for a limited period in a setting (A) that is not locked; and (B) from which the exit is not physically blocked by furniture, a closed door held shut from the outside, or another inanimate object.”

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has adopted procedures for schools’ use of time-out and restraint in Title 19 of the Texas Administrative Code Section 89.1053. Teachers can restrain a student in an emergency situation if:

  • (1) Restraint shall be limited to the use of such reasonable force as is necessary to address the emergency.
  • (2) Restraint shall be discontinued at the point at which the emergency no longer exists.
  • (3) Restraint shall be implemented in such a way as to protect the health and safety of the student and others.
  • (4) Restraint shall not deprive the student of basic human necessities.

The procedures also require regular training for some members of the school. Moreover, when a teacher restrains a student with special needs, an administrator and the parent must be notified. Detailed documentation must also be filed in the student’s special education file (a sample form is provided by TEA).

The regulations also include information on the proper use of time-out. Among other requirements, the time-out must be administered by a trained professional and cannot be physically forced.

What’s Next?

Texas is certainly ahead of the national curve when it comes protecting students with special needs from unnecessary seclusion and restraint. However, a national standard is necessary to push the remaining 36 states lacking a statute in the right direction.

Want to see action? Contact your legislators and ask them to sign on to the legislation currently before Congress. COPAA shows how to find and contact your legislator, as well as a sample message you can send your Representative and/or Senator by email.