Stories of charter school officials telling — or hinting to — high-needs students that they should look elsewhere for their educational needs have long fueled criticism of the charter sector. But a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education argues that “counseling out” is not the cause of the special education gap between the city’s district and charter elementary schools.
In New York City, 13.1 percent of charter school students receive special education services, compared to 16.5 percent of district school students. Using lottery data from 25 charter elementary schools and information from the city, researcher Marcus Winters found two main reasons for the gap: that fewer students with disabilities apply for kindergarten spots at charter schools, and charters classify fewer students as needing special education services once they start school.
The report was not mean to “fully explain away what is a well-documented disparity,” New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said at a discussion at the center on Monday.
“What it does do, importantly, is demonstrate conclusively that a significant number of charter schools in New York City are having success in keeping children from inappropriately being classified in the first place as needing special education services and at the same time, hopefully giving them a far better chance at success in their school careers,” Merriman said.
The report will be a boon for charter school advocates, many of whom attended the discussion. It also reaffirms positions that Winters, who is affiliated with the right-wing Manhattan Institute, has taken before about how students with disabilities are not denied access to charter schools.
The data have some significant limitations. Only 25 charter elementary schools provided their lottery and retention information, and most are a part of charter networks, including Achievement First, Explore, Girls Prep, Success Academy, Icahn, KIPP, and Uncommon Schools. That means the report does little to illustrate what’s happening at the city’s many independent charter schools, and since schools had to volunteer their data, any schools actively counseling students out would presumably have declined to participate.
And not everyone is convinced that counseling out is an insignificant factor in the special education gap. Paulina Davis of the Charter Schools Initiative at Advocates for Children of New York said she regularly helps families who call the organization’s helpline looking for information about their children’s rights.
“My work has been busy here,” she said. “While some charter schools do make an effort to work with parents of students with disabilities, we do still get a number of calls from parents who will say, a charter school said we don’t think we’re a good fit for your child.”
In 2010, state legislators tried to address the enrollment disparities by requiring charter schools to register high-needs students at a rate “comparable” to that of their local school district. But when the state proposed a methodology to calculate those enrollment targets, some charter leaders objected, saying that it would remove incentives for schools to help students enough so that they no longer require special education services.
Those sentiments were echoed in Winters’ report, which shows that charter schools declassify special education students at higher rates than district schools — leading to unfair comparisons, charter leaders said. Winters’ report also unpacks the diversity of the special needs classification, showing that for the most severe categories of special needs, the district-charter gap doesn’t grow much from kindergarten to fifth grade. That gap is composed almost solely of students with the least severe category of specific learning disabilities, who Winters said were “heavily over-identified” in district schools.
Also at play in creating the gap are charter schools’ enrollment policies. Special education students in all kinds of schools are statistically more likely than other students to leave the school they’re at, regardless of type, which Winters called “natural mobility.” But students who leave a charter school are much more likely to end up in a district school, since few charter schools take students mid-year or take many students in the older elementary grades.
Some elementary schools, such as DREAM Charter School in Harlem, are enrolling high proportions of special education students. At the discussion, DREAM’s director of special education, Jacqueline Frey, said her school has 24 percent special education students thanks to a range of programs that attract families of students with special needs.
That effort is what Davis says is still missing in some parts of the charter sector. “I too agree that we don’t know what parents are being told,” she said. “We do know that there hasn’t been much growth in as diverse array of services offered at charter schools for students with disabilities.”