Charter schools don’t do enough to educate students with special needs, critics say. In New York City, according to United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, charters “ignore” state law and “counsel out” students with disabilities in order to inflate test scores and make the schools look more successful than they really are. On average, fewer special-education students are enrolled in New York City charter schools than in the city’s traditional public schools—but that’s not because charters are avoiding or expelling them. Rather, charters are both more likely than traditional public schools to move kids up and out of special education and less likely to classify them as having learning disabilities in the first place.
Mulgrew and others pointed to a recent study by the nonpartisan Independent Budget Office purporting to find that 80 percent of charter school students receiving special-education services in kindergarten leave their school by the third grade. Mulgrew didn’t know that the IBO researchers improperly excluded from their survey the vast majority of kids in special education, thus invalidating the findings. The researchers don’t deny the mistake, though thus far they refuse to issue a correction.
The truth is that students with special needs are actually less likely to leave New York City’s charter schools than they are to leave its traditional public schools. I recently conducted a study for the Manhattan Institute and the Center for Reinventing Public Education following the same cohort of kids as the IBO did, but accurately classifying all students receiving special-education services. I tracked the movements and disability classifications for the students attending New York City charter and traditional public elementary schools. Among those kindergartners enrolled in special education during the 2008–09 school year, 23.3 percent of those who started in a charter school had left by the end of the third grade, compared with 29.9 percent of those who started in a traditional public school. In fact, more elementary school students identified as having a disability entered New York City charter schools each year than exited them.
What, then, produces the so-called special-education gap? Students with disabilities are less likely to apply to charter schools in kindergarten than they are simply to attend their local traditional public schools. The difference is particularly large among those with speech or language impairments. It’s possible that some students with disabilities are discouraged from applying to charters, or perhaps students with disabilities prefer the services in traditional public schools. Regardless, all students, whatever their disability status, are welcome to fill out a charter school lottery application if they wish.
The special-education gap grows as students move through the elementary grades, because students in traditional public schools are much more likely than charter students to be newly classified into special education—and they’re far less likely to be declassified out of it. Nearly all the growth in the special-education gap as students move through elementary school occurs in the category of “specific learning disability”—the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed disability classification. Research demonstrates that public schools are often too quick to label underperforming students as having this kind of disability.
I further analyzed data from the enrollment lotteries of 25 charter schools. Attending a charter school significantly decreased the likelihood that a student would be placed into special education in a later grade. That is, another cause of the special-education gap is that charter students are less likely than traditional public school students to be classified into special education in the first place. Charters and traditional public schools serve the same kids; charters are just less likely to put a label on them.
I don’t mean to suggest that no student has ever been inappropriately excluded from a charter school because of a disability. Any charter that does this should be held accountable. But an honest look at the enrollment numbers demonstrates that the special-education gap is not driven, as critics claim, by charter schools “counseling out” students with disabilities. Attacking charters for excluding special-education kids is simply not consistent with the facts.