Sources, Methodology, and Definitions: Trends in Special Education in Charter and Traditional Public Schools by U.S. State
Dec 02

Sources, Methodology, and Definitions: Trends in Special Education in Charter and Traditional Public Schools by U.S. State

This page provides sources, methodology, and definitions for the Center’s interactive database, Trends in Special Education in Charter and Traditional Public Schools by U.S. State.

View Database

Sources and Methodology

This database includes data by state from three primary sources1: 1) the 2015-2016 U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), released by the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR), 2) Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data for Fiscal Year 2017, released by the US Census Bureau, and 3) the Center’s Special Education Finance Database.

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1This database is constrained by limitations associated with data availability. Ideally, data could come from one source and reflect one year. Center staff will consistently update this database to reflect the most recently released data by each source, and encourage readers to reach out with any feedback concerning accuracy and validity.

This database pulls the following variables by state from the 2015-2016 CRDC: 

  • Total number of traditional public schools, charter schools, and specialized charter schools 
  • Rate of enrollment under IDEA of students with disabilities overall, in traditional public schools, and in charter schools
  • Rate of enrollment under Section 504 of students with disabilities overall
  • Suspension rate of students with and without disabilities in traditional public schools and in charter schools

For details on the methodology behind the data analysis, see Appendix A in “Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools in 2015-2016: A Bi-Annual Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection.”

Note: Nine states have no CRDC data for charter schools, reflecting either a 0 or N/A for charter-specific variables.

  • Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont do not have charter school laws.
  • Alabama, Kentucky, and West Virginia have charter school laws, but they were enacted after 2015-2016 CRDC survey results were collected. Their charter school laws were passed in 2015, 2017, and 2019 respectively. 
  • While Washington’s charter school law was passed in 2012, its charter schools were deemed unconstitutional in the early days of the 2015-16 school year. All became alternative learning environments (ALEs) for one year, and are thus not reported in CRDC data for 2015-2016.

This database pulls the following variables by state from Table 5 and Table 8 of the Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Datasheet for Fiscal Year 2017:

  • Percentage distribution of federal, state, and local revenue sources for public elementary-secondary school systems 
  • Per-pupil amounts for current spending of public elementary-secondary school systems

For more information on the 2017 public elementary-secondary education finance data, visit this US Census Bureau webpage.

This database pulls the following variables by state based on research from the Center’s 2016 Finance Database: 

  • LEA status2
    Authorizer type (i.e., state education agency (SEA), LEA, institute of higher education, nonprofit organization, independent charter board3,
    or other4,
  • Special education funding model5, (i.e., weighted funding, census-based distribution, resource-based funding, percentage reimbursement, block grant, a combination of approaches, or no separate special education funding)

Learn more about the Center’s 2016 Finance Database. These variables were collected by Center staff by reviewing published materials on funding for charter schools and their students with disabilities and documenting funding models. Center staff then verified findings with state experts (e.g., officials in the state department of education’s charter school, special education, or school finance divisions, as well as charter school association personnel) and revised documentation based on interviews and written feedback. Lastly, Center staff asked state experts to review and sign off on the revised findings.


Note: 7 states were not included in this project, as they did not have charter school laws at the time the project was completed (i.e., Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia). Center staff reviewed the charter school laws for Kentucky and West Virginia to identify authorizer type and discerned the special education funding model for each of the 7 states by reviewing the Education Commission of the States’ “K-12 Special Education Funding 50 State Comparison,” Tammy Kolbe’s “Funding Special Education: Charting a Path that Confronts Complexity and Crafts Coherence,” and EdBuild’s “State Policy Analysis.”


2Center staff conducted research (e.g., identified state statutory language, reached out experts on the ground, reviewed state department of education websites, examined relevant literature) to elaborate on the LEA status for each state and provide more specific definitions of LEA status in the context of special education, given nuances associated with financial and legal responsibilities for providing special education services.
3Also known as “commissions” or “institutes,” these statewide bodies award charters and oversee charter schools.
4Examples of “other” include mayors’ offices and municipalities.
5States use a variety of approaches to distribute state-generated special education funds. Generally, state-level special education funding schemes fall into one of seven categories: 1) Weighted funding: funding allocated per student with a disability and amount (i.e., weight) increases based on severity of disability, type of placement, or student need. Weighted formulas may be based on a single factor (e.g., disability diagnosis) or multiple factors (e.g., diagnosis and services provided). 2) Census-based distribution: a fixed average per-pupil dollar amount of funding allocated per state average rates of disabilities, regardless of specific rate of disabilities in each district or school. 3) Resource-based funding: funding based on payment for a certain number of special education resources (e.g., teachers or classroom units), typically determined by state-prescribed staff/student ratios. 4) Percentage reimbursement: funding based on a percentage of allowable actual expenditures. 5) Block grant: funding based on base-year or prior-year allocations, revenues, and/or enrollment. 6) Combination of approaches: funding based on a combination of census and weighted formulas. 7) No separate special education funding: funding to support special education is rolled into overall state per-pupil allocation funding levels and is distributed by localities as they choose.

Definitions

State laws empower a variety of agencies to authorize charter schools. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers recognizes six types:

  1. Local Education Agency (LEA
  2. State Education Agency (SEA) (e.g., a state department of education) 
  3. Institution of Higher Education (IHE)
  4. Non-for-profit organization (NFP)
  5. Independent Charter Board (ICB) (e.g., statewide bodies known as “commissions” or “institutes”)
  6. Non-education government (NEG) (e.g., mayors or municipalities)

Click here to learn more about the different authorizer types.

The federal, state, and local funds charter schools receive for regular and special education purposes.

The IDEA, federal legislation originally passed in 1975, ensures that students with disabilities are provided with:

  1. Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  2. Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
  3. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  4. Appropriate Evaluation
  5. Parent and Teacher Participation, and
  6. Procedural Safeguards

Under federal statutes, an LEA is an entity with the authority and responsibility to operate public schools. In most states, a traditional LEA is called a school district. LEAs are legally and financially responsible for providing students with disabilities access to the full continuum of special education and related services.

A charter school may be classified as its own LEA, as part of an LEA, or as a hybrid. LEA status may affect how charter schools receive federal, state, and local funds for general and/or special education purposes. Typically, charter schools that are their own LEAs receive federal and state funds directly from the state. Charter schools that are part of an LEA usually receive funding and/or services via the traditional LEA. In some states, the law prescribes a specific LEA status. In others, the charter school (or its authorizer) is permitted to choose.

Click here to learn more about how LEA status impacts charter schools.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that protects students with disabilities from being discriminated against by an educational entity receiving federal funding.

A specialized school is one that primarily or entirely focuses on educating students with either a particular disability or any disability.

States use a variety of approaches to distribute state-generated special education funds. Generally, state-level special education funding schemes fall into one of seven categories:

  1. Weighted funding: Funding allocated per student with a disability and the amount (i.e., weight) increases based on severity of disability, type of placement, or student need. States vary in how they apply weighting to a state average per-pupil funding amount (i.e., a base). Some states adopt a single weight (e.g., disability diagnosis), while others adopt multiple weights that are generally tied to and increase funding based on differing levels corresponding to 1) the number of students with a specific disability, 2) the significance of students’ disabilities and levels of needs, or 3) where or how students are educated. 
  2. Census-based distribution: Funding is based on a fixed average per-pupil funding amount allocated in accordance with the state average enrollment rate of students with disabilities, regardless of each LEA’s specific enrollment rate. States provide LEAs with a set dollar amount (e.g., $8,000) that represents the average cost of educating a student with a disability, which is then multiplied by the average proportion of students with disabilities across the state (e.g., 13 percent). 
  3. Resource-based funding: Funding is based on a certain number of resources for special education (e.g., teachers or classroom units), generally dictated by state-prescribed teacher-student or staff-student ratios. States vary in their resource thresholds and staffing requirements. Like weighted formulas, resource ratios can be generalized across disability categories and student placements, or they can be specific to the students’ disabilities and levels of need. 
  4. Percentage reimbursement: Funding is based on some share of allowable actual expenditures that qualify for reimbursements. States might reimburse, for example, 20 percent of all special education expenditures above the average per-pupil amount up to $20,000 and then 50 percent of all special education expenditures above $20,000 (such as those typically spent to provide more specialized services). States vary in their reimbursement percentages. 
  5. Block grant: Funding is based on base-year or prior-year allocations, expenditures, and/or enrollment rates. Flat grant appropriations are generally distributed to LEAs for each student with a disability or according to disability category. 
  6. Combination of approaches: Funding is based on a combination of funding approaches. A typical example includes census-based distribution and per-pupil weights, through which states allocate dollars based on consideration of both overall enrollment rates and the cost and degree of support required.7.  No separate special education funding: Funding to support special education is rolled into overall state per-pupil allocation funding levels and is distributed by localities as they choose.
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