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Bruno: An Awkward Defense Of Charter Schools' SPED Services

Special Education - 1Mike Petrilli is annoyed with the GAO report finding that charter schools "have a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools". His complaint is that the report (and those who commissioned it or have used it to criticize charters) are implicitly - and wrongly - assuming that "every single public school is expected to serve students with every single type of disability."

In the comments to his post Leonie Haimson points out that this runs somewhat contrary to the rhetoric of many charter supporters. More to the point, though, it's not even clear why he thinks the GAO is assuming that every individual school should be perfectly representative demographically, so the objection seems a little bit like a straw man.

As far as I can tell the report only assumes that the fact that students with disabilities are underrepresented in the whole charter sector suggests that there are some problems with inclusion at the individual school level in some places. And I think that's a plausible enough assumption, especially since it's not hard to imagine why charters might struggle to- or prefer not to - enroll students with disabilities.

Now, maybe Mike wants to argue that the charter sector as a whole shouldn't be expected to be representative or that the charter sector is in fact educating students with disabilities so well that the discrepancies in enrollment are completely explained by students shedding the "disabled" label. Those are very different arguments to make, however. They're also probably much more challenging arguments to make persuasively. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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I guess ultimately for me, it would come down to is it the school keeping the students out or the parents uncertain that sending their child to that school is best...

Sarah, I'd say there are at least two things that concern me. First, I think the line between "keeping students out" and "parents being uncertain" is likely to actually be pretty blurry in practice. The way charter staff interact with parents of students with disabilities could make them nervous for a variety of reasons, some intentional and some not.

Second, as the charter sector grows, I think we should be worried about students with disabilities becoming increasingly concentrated in traditional district schools, particularly since charters are concentrated in more urban settings where diagnosed disability rates are higher. I think this has the potential to be a problem regardless of whether charters are actively discouraging those students or whether parents are independently concluding not to send their kids there.

Somewhat separately, it concerns me that charter supporters - to whom I'm generally sympathetic - seem unwilling to really confront these issues directly. Their reaction to this report involved way too much defensive denial, in my view.

There's a structural issue to keep in mind when trying to make sense of the GAO results. Simply put, special education is not the responsibility of schools, it's the responsibility of states and, through them, districts. Charter schools are in a strange situation in regard to that. Some charter schools are part of a district, some are their own district, and some are neither part of a district nor are they their own district. Examining the enrollment of children with special needs in charter schools is important and appropriate, but it's a complicated issue.

Charter schools, no matter what their relationship to a district, have little independent room to maneuver in regard to children with special needs. This holds equally true for other public schools. So limiting the discussion to where parents choose to send their kids, or to the openness or resistance by charter operators to children with special needs misses an important part of the issue.

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