Thursday, December 6, 2012
Charter Schools Under-Enroll Students With Special Needs, New Review Finds
Several recent reports, including one from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, have found that charter schools generally under-enroll special education students when compared to conventional public schools. A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, however, asserts that charter schools’ special education rates are much closer to those of district public schools than is described by these other recent reports.
A review of that new report concludes that, even though it was touted as reaching different conclusions – more favorable to charter schools – than past research, in fact the results are very much consistent. It confirms that charter schools are systematically under-enrolling students with special needs.
The report, New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis, by Robin Lake, Betheny Gross, and Patrick Denice, was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University. The review is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.
“While the report does show that under-enrollment patterns vary by grade level and to some extent by location, it downplays the fact that the largest subset of charter schools in its sample—elementary and K-8 schools, most of which are in New York City—do systematically under-enroll such children,” Baker writes.
Baker offers praise for some elements of the study but also points out that the authors skewed the selection of schools they examined in ways that stacked the deck in favor of finding less of an imbalance. But the report still found that district schools enrolled proportionally more disabled children than charters – albeit not to the degree that an unskewed comparison of schools would likely have found.
In fact, Baker offers his own analyses of data from Houston and New York City that show similar patterns of under-enrollment.
Baker also rejects an attempt by the report’s authors to explain away the under-enrollment at the elementary level. The report includes several statements to the effect that the real problem may be that conventional elementary schools over-identify children as having special needs or that those schools don’t do as good a job as do charters with early interventions and thus with avoiding identifications. Baker observes that the report includes no evidence or foundation for that proposal. He then uses data from New Jersey and from Philadelphia to show that the special needs students served by charters are disproportionately in the low-needs, “marginal” categories – the exact ones that early interventions and discretionary under-identification would be expected to remove.
“The report’s objective seems to be to provide the appearance of an empirical basis for an advocacy goal: convincing policymakers it would be unnecessary to adopt “enrollment target” policies to address a special education under-enrollment problem that may not exist. The report’s own findings do not support this contention,” Baker writes. And even the degree to which it may offer some insights, he concludes, is “severely limited by the scope of the report’s analyses, which focus on charter schools largely concentrated in a single urban context—New York City.”
The Think Twice think tank review project () of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policy makers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.