Two recent analyses of New York City charter schools include data regarding the enrollment and mobility of students with disabilities. While many questions remain, the two reports are examples of the type of research essential to having informed policy discussions regarding how to ensure students with disabilities have equal access to charter schools.
Marcus Winters’ report, “Why the Gap: Special Education in New York City Charter Schools,” describes the enrollment of students with disabilities in 25 elementary charter schools in New York City from 2008-2011. The core of his analysis is a comparison of the lottery winners and losers from Kindergarten through third grade in charter schools relative to traditional public schools and identifies factors that contribute to the enrollment trends. Notably and appropriately given the limitations of the data and narrow scope of the inquiry, Winters acknowledges that his findings document specific factors that contribute to the trends but do not provide insight into what drives these factors or their impact on student outcomes.
Winters research found that after four years, the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools identified as eligible to receive special education and related services is lower than in traditional public schools (i.e., 8% vs. 15%). His examination of the enrollment data found the difference was due to 1) characteristics of students who applied to charter schools in kindergarten, 2) differences in the number of students identified as having specific learning disabilities and 3) student mobility trends.
The New York City Independent Budget Office brief: “Staying or Going: Comparing Student Attrition Rates in Charter schools with Nearby Traditional Public Schools” examines the enrollment trends and mobility rates of students in 53 charter schools and 116 traditional public schools between 2008-2011 to discern substantive patterns. Fewer students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools as kindergarteners (i.e., .8% versus 7%) and both types of schools reported notable increases in the percentage of students with disabilities as they progress through school due to referrals and identification. By third grade, 13% of students in charter schools have IEPs compared to 19% in traditional public schools.
Overall, the IBO’s data indicate that charter school students are less mobile, after three years, 70% of students in charter schools remained in the same school compared to 61% of their peers in traditional public schools. This pattern was consistent regardless of race, gender, poverty and language (i.e., English Language learners). The exception to the mobility difference was for students with disabilities wherein by third grade, 20% of the students with disabilities who enrolled as kindergartners remained at their original charter school compared to 50% of their peers in traditional public schools. However, when the analysis included the students who were identified after they enrolled in a charter school, the mobility rate decreased wherein 63% of the students with disabilities persisted at their original school compared to 57% of those in traditional public schools. The students who continued in charter schools performed better on third grade assessments in both reading and mathematics. However, the students who exited charter schools had lower test scores indicating that attrition appeared to contribute to the increase in performance at the charter schools.
Underlying comparisons between the two types of schools in both reports is the presumption that traditional public schools provide the “correct” or “right” proportion of students with special education and related services and charter schools should aspire to enroll the same proportion. However, unlike other types of comparisons of student characteristics, for example enrollment of say boys vs. girls, there is no definitive “correct” percentage because there is subjectivity involved with identifying students as eligible for special education. Historically, both over identification and under identification of students with disabilities have been ongoing concerns that have driven important policy changes (e.g., shifts in funding systems to remove financial incentives to over identify). In some instances, inflated district percentages create an apparent gap between the district average and that of a charter school, which seems to suggest that the charter school is under identifying or counseling-out students with special needs. Such gaps need to be carefully explored.
The relative subjectivity involved with identifying students with certain types of disabilities is an important contextual element. For instance, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 60% of the students eligible for special education in Iowa are diagnosed as having a specific learning disability whereas in Kentucky, this category represents only 16% of the students who are eligible. While a somewhat blunt comparison, the variability demonstrates the subjectivity in special education diagnoses that can contribute to overall identification rates.
Acknowledging the bigger question about identification subjectivity, both studies document important findings and raise significant questions that merit further inquiry. Questions for future research:
- Where are students who are diagnosed with a disability before they enter kindergarten obtaining special education and related services and to what extent does this pre-determine where they will enroll in kindergarten (e.g., do more traditional public schools offer specialized early education programs)?
- Do parents of students who have disabilities that are diagnosed before they enter the public schools setting, presumably students with more significant disabilities that are being diagnosed by medical professional as opposed to school personnel, perceive that charter schools are not appealing options for their child?
- Are traditional public schools and charter schools enrolling similar students with disabilities according to type of disability?
- Does the role of the traditional district on the IEP team in New York influence the extent to which charter schools are identified as a viable option for students with disabilities or influence mobility?
- Why are parents of students with disabilities transferring students out of charter schools?
Overall, both the IBO and Winters studies contribute valuable information to the literature base and introduce concrete data to a discussion that is all too often fueled by anecdotes. Both advance the substance of the conversation regarding the enrollment and education of students with disabilities in the charter sector by unpacking nuances of enrollment data. If the charter sector is going to effectively address nagging concerns regarding equal access, retention, and provision of exemplary programs for students with disabilities, research such as that conducted by IBO and Winters is essential. However, we require much more information to put their respective findings in context in order to fully understand the implications much less consider strategies to address problematic trends.