by Paul O’Neill
Julia Sass Rubin and Mark Weber of Rutgers University recently published a report (the first of a three part series, with two parts yet to come) that examines enrollment differences between public charter schools and traditional district schools in New Jersey. These differences are most clearly seen in several demographic categories such as income status, English proficiency, race, and special education. One overall finding in the report was that charter schools are enrolling fewer students with disabilities. Additionally, the data seem to show smaller representations of students with more severe disabilities in charter schools as compared to district schools. Our mission is to ensure that students with disabilities have ready access to charter schools which have the support necessary to enable those students to thrive. For that reason, enrollment gaps between charter and traditional public schools are always a concern.
However, context and details matter when trying to understand enrollment data. The comparison of special education enrollment percentages is a good place to begin asking questions, but this comparison by itself only scratches the surface of the larger special education landscape. For instance, this landscape includes the laws which specify charter schools’ responsibilities for provision of special education. New Jersey charter school law identifies charter schools as independent local education agencies (LEAs) that function in many ways like traditional school districts. The law also includes a clause wherein some responsibility to serve students with disabilities remains with students’ district of residence (e.g. if a student requires a specialized placement for 100% of the school day).
So when Rubin and Weber note that charter schools serve fewer students with the most significant needs as compared to traditional districts, it seems important to put that in the context of how state law allocates that role. Moreover, they should acknowledge that in New Jersey, a state with a history of serving students with disabilities in more segregated settings than is typical, students with the most significant needs are frequently not enrolled in neighborhood schools. Additional factors that we believe should be considered are the following:
- The role that parents play in choosing a school appropriate for their child’s needs;
- The way in which a school identifies and classifies a student as having a disability; and
- The capacity of all schools to provide a full continuum of instructional options.
In a nutshell, we believe that differences in special education enrollment require focused attention and deeper analysis by those in a position to drive change. We realize though that data on these factors are not widely available, or have not yet been collected formally and completely. Therefore, with regard to special education, we think that the next important step in the analysis of enrollment differences between charter and district schools in New Jersey would be to gather more quantitative and qualitative data. Ideally these data would provide insight into who is attending what schools and clarity about what factors are influencing enrollment decisions. Equipped with this information, both policy makers and practitioners can make decisions to ensure equal access for all students to all schools in New Jersey.