Many criticisms of the charter school movement are pretty unconvincing, coming from those with a large stake in the status quo. Charter schools are not an underhanded attempt to dismantle teachers unions and privatize the public education system. Others, however, are more difficult to dismiss. Most notably, many critics have pointed to the fact that charter schools teach a far lower percentage of special education students than regular public schools. Essentially, they argue, charter schools are handling the problem of difficult-to-educate students by simply not letting them in, boosting their own performance numbers while leaving it to traditional schools to provide for these students. It’s a compelling argument with only one problem: It isn’t true.A new study from the Manhattan institute comparing charter schools and traditional public schools in New York City found that the lower number of special ed students in charter schools has nothing to do with prejudice. Rather, fewer of them apply in the first place:
- Surprisingly, the results do not suggest that charter schools are refusing to admit or are pushing out students with special needs. In fact, more students with previously identified disabilities enter charter schools than exit them as they progress through elementary grade levels. The 20 percent growth in the gap is driven by greater proportions of general education students entering charter schools between kindergarten and third grade, which has the effect of reducing the total proportion of students with special needs compared to the total number of students. In other words, the gap increases because the number of regular enrollment students in charter schools goes up as new students enroll, not because the number of students with disabilities goes down.
- The growth in the special education gap between charter and traditional public schools occurs mostly in what could be considered the most subjective categories of student disabilities: emotional disability and specific learning disability. By far, the most substantial growth in the special education gap occurs in the least severe category, that of specific learning disability. Rates of classification in what might be considered the more severe (and less subjective) categories of special education—autism, speech or language impairment, or intellectual disability—remain quite similar in charter and traditional public schools over time.
This is good news. Charter schools’ recent success at improving the performance of poor and minority students would be much more difficult to take seriously if they had achieved this by keeping out students who are the hardest to educate. We’re glad to see this would-be criticism thoroughly debunked.[Classroom image courtesy of Shutterstock]