California Charter Schools Short-Changed on Special Education Funds

Published November 1, 2004

According to a recent survey from the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, California’s charter schools are reducing the number of students labeled as “special education” by using aggressive early intervention strategies such as “neverstreaming” to keep students performing at grade level. In addition, the charter schools are providing disabled students with a quality education in the “least restrictive environment” by including special education students in regular classrooms.

Remarkably, Reason notes, the charter schools achieve those outcomes despite being shortchanged of their share of special education funding by their sponsoring school districts, which decide how the funds are allocated. Up to 37 percent of the money can be withheld, according to the July 2004 study, “Special Education Accountability: Structural Reform to Help Charter Schools Make the Grade,” by Reason Foundation Education Director Lisa Snell.

“There’s really no excuse for such huge percentages of money being pilfered from charter schools,” said Snell. “Charter and public schools face enough challenges in educating our kids, they shouldn’t have to fight for resources obviously intended for their special education students.”

For example, Yvonne Chan, principal at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, California, reports the Los Angeles Unified School District not only takes as much as 37 percent from her school, but provides “zero services in return.”

Snell’s recommendations to further improve the performance of special education programs in charter schools include the following:

  • let special education funding follow the child;
  • use special education cooperatives to pool resources and insurance;
  • employ value-added testing to measure student performance improvement under specific teachers; and
  • link explicit financial incentives directly to student performance.

“Charter schools are taking innovative steps and using early intervention techniques to ensure children never leave the general education classroom,” said Snell, pointing to a growing body of evidence that the percentage of students assigned to special education is artificially inflated by school officials who count students who simply haven’t been taught to read.

“Ironically, public schools and charter schools that offer services early on and actually reduce their special education population through neverstreaming or other early intervention strategies may be criticized as not properly serving special education students,” she noted.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

The July 2004 study from the Reason Foundation, “Special Education Accountability: Structural Reform to Help Charter Schools Make the Grade,” by Lisa Snell, is available online at