Accountability Looms for Special Education

Published March 1, 2004

With a new report revealing a large achievement gap between disabled and non-disabled students, increased media attention has been focused on how best to achieve accountability for special education students in traditional public schools and in charter schools under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

In January 2004, for example, CNN headlines announced, “Special education students skew test results,” leading schools to be labeled failing. A January 2004 New York Times editorial suggested “critics of No Child Left Behind want to abandon disabled children by counting them out of the push for higher standards.”

Prompting much of this interest was a new report from Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trust, titled “Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards.”

The Quality Counts report examines special education and accountability, pointing out that “within a decade, federal law requires that all students–including those with disabilities–be performing at the ‘proficient’ level on state tests.” The report reveals a sizeable achievement gap between disabled and non-disabled students. Specifically:

  • On fourth-grade reading tests, 30 of the 39 states with complete data had achievement gaps of 30 percentage points or more between special and general education students.
  • In Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Vermont, the gaps were more than 50 percentage points.
  • Gaps in eighth-grade reading tended to be even wider. Only five of the 39 states–Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas–reported achievement gaps under 30 percentage points.
  • On high school reading exams, 32 of 36 states reported achievement gaps larger than 30 percentage points.

The Quality Counts report also noted no state had linked special education funding to student achievement or any other performance measures for special education students.

Charter Challenge

Charter schools face unique challenges serving special education students. Last year, about 2,700 charter schools served approximately 700,000 children. If special education students make up between 7 and 10 percent of charter school enrollment, this represents between 49,000 and 70,000 special education students enrolled in charter schools.

Special education accountability has played a role in the closure of a few charter schools nationwide. For example, in 2003 the Illinois State Board of Education revoked the Thomas Jefferson Charter School’s charter when it failed to achieve compliance with federal special education law; in Ohio, the state Department of Education cited the Summit Academy of Canton for special education failures; and the Arizona Department of Education reported charter schools receive more special education complaints than do traditional public schools.

Much of the charter school movement’s difficulty with special education is caused by the funding model for special education students. In most cases, special education funding does not follow the child into the charter school. The most common model for special education funding is that the sponsoring district keeps the special education funding and provides special education services to the charter school.

The largest drawback to accepting special education services from a school district is that charter schools must then accept the same quality of service the district provides to all special education students and lose the flexibility and funding to test innovative special education models.

Another drawback is that school districts do not always meet their contractual obligation to provide services to special education students in charter schools. For example, in November 2003, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released its audit of how New York State local school districts handled their responsibilities toward charter schools with respect to special education funding. The OIG found charters were being cheated out of IDEA funds to which they were entitled, and that local districts had made it difficult-to-impossible for charters to get legally mandated special education information.

In California, school districts have found that providing special education services for charter schools can be a revenue-generating proposition for the district. A large charter school that serves at-risk high school students has generated close to a million dollars in special education funds for the sponsoring district but uses only a small fraction of those resources to serve special education students enrolled in the charter school. In essence, it is possible for school districts to make generous “profits” on charter school special education students.

Taking the Money

Charter schools may legally have the option to take the per-pupil special education funding for themselves instead of receiving special education services from the sponsoring district. Yet charter schools usually opt for the services because of the potential cost of special education and the risk to the charter school’s limited finances if the charter school enrolled a high-cost special education student.

In addition, if a charter school receives its special education dollars directly, the authorizing district may still try to charge special education fees to the charter school. Under California state law, for example, the authorizing district is allowed to levy a tax on charter schools to pay for districtwide special education programs, but the law doesn’t specify a percentage. In 2003, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that Los Angeles Unified officials proposed taking 40 percent of special education funding from the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center and the Fenton Avenue Charter School to pay for districtwide legal and administrative costs. As a result, the two schools would lose some $600,000 used for exemplary special education programs for more than 400 special education students.

“This is totally discriminating against special education kids in charter schools,” Vaughn principal Yvonne Chan told the Daily News. “This is destroying a special education program that has worked in the last 10 years.”

An emerging strategy for charter schools is the pooling of resources among schools in a state to achieve collective purchasing power. Charter schools in Washington DC and Indiana have formed special education cooperatives to share specialized staff and limit the potential financial risk. These cooperatives have given charter schools more control over their special education funding and quality of service provision.

Charter school advocates have argued the schools can serve special education students better than public schools do because of the charters’ mainstreaming approach, small classrooms, and individualized instruction.

In testimony before the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education in 2002, Elizabeth Giovanetti, managing director of special education services for New American Schools, noted, “Parents of children with mild to moderate learning disabilities often find that their child performs best in a charter environment, given the student-centered focus, small scale, and the emphasis on achievement and accountability.”

Little Data to Analyze

It is difficult to test whether the charter school model leads to better outcomes for special education students. While NCLB requires test scores to be disaggregated by subgroup, schools with small sample sizes are not required to report test score data. Therefore, only very large charter schools and public schools are required to report their special education data. This makes it difficult for education researchers to understand the effect of charter school innovation on student achievement.

In addition, the unintended consequence of the current law is that it discriminates against large schools that seek out and serve students with disabilities. A school with high academic growth but a large special education population may be designated as failing, while a school with lower overall academic achievement but a smaller special education subgroup may not be penalized because the special education data are not scrutinized. This discourages charter schools and other public schools from working to effectively serve special education students.

The ability of researchers to test innovative special education models would be improved if schools were required to report the test score data for these small groups for research purposes, while continuing to suspend NCLB penalties for small sample sizes.

Lisa Snell is director of the education program for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The 2004 “Quality Counts” report from Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trust, “Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards,” is available online at