GAO report reveals charter schools falling short of federal mandate in enrollment of special education students
According to The Wall Street Journal, a report published by the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that charter schools are not enrolling as high a portion of special education students as traditional public schools, despite federal laws mandating that publicly financed schools run by private entities take almost every disabled student seeking to enroll. The GAO report is the first comprehensive study focused on charter schools’ enrollment of special needs students.
The report showed that special education students, those with diagnosed disabilities from Down Syndrome to Attention Deficit Disorder, made up 8.2% of charter school students during the 2009-2010 school year. While that was up from 7.7% the year before, it was below the 11.2% average at traditional public schools in 2009-2010, and 11.3% the previous year. “These are differences that cannot remain. They are not acceptable,” said Rep. George Miller (D-CA), a charter school proponent who asked the GAO to look into the issue.
Federal law requires all public schools, including charter schools, to admit students with disabilities. Schools are legally required to carry out individualized plans for each disabled student, which could include extra reading help, or placement in a classroom with fewer students.
Critics have contended that charter schools refuse to enroll special education students, or push them out once enrolled, to save money or boost school-wide test scores. Charter school operators and supporters say their enrollment numbers are lower partly because many parents of special needs children choose to enroll in traditional schools that often are more experienced in providing such services, or in private schools that can give those students individualized attention.
In addition, charter schools in some states do not have access to regional cooperatives, which school districts join to provide costly special education services. And charter schools, on average, receive 20% less funding than traditional schools under some state funding formulas.
The GAO report said the reasons for the enrollment disparity were not clear. It said “anecdotal accounts suggest” that some charter schools discourage disabled students from enrolling or deny admission to students with more severe disabilities. But it also said that traditional public schools tend to be larger and often have more resources for special needs kids.
In a letter included in the GAO report, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) said it would provide more guidance to charter schools on their legal responsibilities for special needs students, and said it would review state policies and charter school enrollment practices to discern what might be causing the skewed enrollment figures. Jim Shelton, who oversees charter school initiatives at ED, said the enrollment gaps between charter and traditional schools are a “relatively small difference,” and that it was difficult to draw conclusions based on the information provided. But he said his office would takes steps to address the issue.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, 6/19/12, By Stephanie Banchero and Caroline Porter
[Editor's Note: The GAO report titled, "Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities" notes: "Most of the 13 charter schools GAO visited publicized and offered special education services, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities." The report also points out that ED's Office for Civil Rights has undertaken two compliance reviews related to charter schools’ recruitment and admission of students with disabilities in three states, but has not issued recent guidance covering admissions practices in detail, nor has ED conducted recent research about factors affecting lower enrollment in charter schools.
In a similar vein, in June 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which reported that a group of parents and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin, had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division alleging that the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program had discriminated against children with disabilities and had segregated them in public schools. The complaint asked DOJ to investigate the voucher school system in Wisconsin, and to order changes that corrected violations of federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.]