Study: Why Charter Schools Have Fewer Disabled Students

Published October 24, 2013

A smaller percentage of special-needs students in New York City charter schools compared to traditional public schools stems from lower application rates and labeling, not discriminatory practices, concludes a Center on Reinventing Public Education study.

“Charter schools are public schools, so they are particularly interesting in why they serve this lower number of kids in special ed,” said Marcus Winters, the study author and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “I was trying to look at some of the underlying factors.”

Critics of school choice often suggest the difference in special-needs enrollment between these options and traditional schools means choice programs discriminate. But Winters has also studied lower rates of special-needs children in voucher schools, finding the same main reasons for the difference: Less interest among parents of special-needs children, and choice schools often provide low-performing children extra help rather than label them learning disabled.

Less Parent Interest
Winters found parents of special-needs children are less likely to apply for charter spots.

“Parents with special-needs kids are very sensitive to where their kids are going to school and whether they are receiving special services,” Winters said.

Many parents of special-needs children receive public services as early as the preschool years.

“They have experience receiving services through the public sector and are comfortable with that setting and worry that the charter schools may not [accommodate them],” Winters said.

Florida’s McKay Scholarship program is the largest special-needs voucher program in the country. Florida law requires school districts to notify parents the voucher is available.

“I don’t know that we could answer as to why parents choose any school,” said Adam Miller, director of charter schools for the Florida Department of Education. “It’s a very complicated decision that takes into account a lot of different factors.”

Student Transience
Special education students are more transient than their peers, Winters found. That greatly affects the special education gap in charter schools.

“The mobility of kids in charter schools is the same or less than in the public system,” Winters said. “Charter schools accept the majority of their students in gateway grades. If you start in a charter school and you leave that charter school, for whatever reason, the chance that you’d find yourself in another charter school is very small because they accept so fewer students in the later grades. This contributes to the gap.”

Winters found more disabled students were entering charters than exiting them as they progressed through elementary school.

Lacking Labels
When the Wisconsin Department of Instruction issued numbers saying 1.6 percent of private school students in the state have special needs, University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf decided to study special education enrollment in Milwaukee’s voucher system.

“My colleagues and I had the data to prove that was not correct, so we wanted to put out a number to correct the public record,” Wolf said.

Their estimate was that approximately 11 percent of Wisconsin voucher students would be labeled special-needs if they attended public schools.

“The private schools have so much a philosophy of inclusion they don’t even label them,… [which is] the most preferred way to deal with special needs,” Wolf said.

Their research showed public schools far more often label a student disabled than do private schools. Wolf suggested this is because public schools receive extra money upon labeling a child disabled.

“The label doesn’t really mean anything to private schools [since] it doesn’t open the doors to anything else,” Miller noted.

What to Do
Recommendations from Winters’ study included declassifying mild disabilities through behavioral and other interventions, and commissioning further research into special-needs parents’ satisfaction with all kinds of schools to better understand why they move their children so much.

Requiring charter schools to meet certain special education thresholds could actually damage their growth, Winters found.

“It’s not the label that matters here, but reaching levels of academic achievement,” Winters said. “Charters schools are more effective at teaching their students—reading and math, especially.”

CRPE is currently studying other cities, and more qualitative research in New York City is underway, Winters said.


Image by Ian.