Why the special ed gap?

Some 13.1 percent of New York City charter school students receive special education services compared to 16.5 percent in traditional public schools. That’s because special-ed students are less likely to apply to charters, concludes Why the Gap?, a study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. In addition, charters are less likely to place students in special education and more likely to “declassify” them.

There’s no evidence charter schools refuse to admit or “push out” disabled students, writes Marcus Winters, the lead researcher, in the New York Daily News.

Parents of students with special needs are less likely to choose to apply to charter schools, especially autistic students and students with a speech or language disability.

The reason isn’t clear. Disabled students enrolled in special preschools that feed into district schools may be inclined to stay within the system.

The gap grows by another 20% as students progress through the third grade. Nearly all of this growth occurs in the mildest and most subjectively diagnosed category of student disabilities: specific learning disability. That’s important because specific learning disability is a category widely recognized to be over-identified among low-performing students.

On average, students attending New York City’s charter schools “learn more than they would have in a traditional public school,” Winters writes. “Thus, it is possible that some students avoid the disability label because they perform well academically.”

More special-needs students enter charter elementary schools than exit, Winters writes.

The difference is that when charter school students with disabilities move, they usually end up in a traditional public school — perhaps because there are more of them, or perhaps because charters accept relatively few students in non-gateway grades — thus reducing the percentage of students with disabilities within the charter sector.

Mobility is high for special-needs students. They are somewhat more likely to leave a traditional public school than a charter.

New York now requires charter schools to set enrollment and attendance targets for students with disabilities, Winters writes. Bill de Blasio, who’s likely to be New York City’s next mayor, advocates requiring charter schools to serve students with special needs at the same rate as traditional public schools.

It would be easy to do: Just hand out more learning disability diagnoses and keep students from leaving special ed. But it wouldn’t be good for students.

A study of Milwaukee charters found similar results, writes Jay Greene. Charters there also were less likely to classify students as learning disabled. He thinks funding incentives are driving special ed placement.

About Joanne


  1. You write – “It would be easy to do: Just hand out more learning disability diagnoses and keep students from leaving special ed.”

    Joanne, I think your prediction is 100% on target. In Massachusetts, we managed to dodge this when they lifted the charter cap. NYC will not be so lucky. Kids lose. Particularly the “not-diagnosed-but-doing-poorly academically” kids. I.e., zero sum. Divert more money to paperwork compliance, then fewer people hours directed to actually helping strugglers, diagnosed or not.

  2. I think I’ve heard that charters receive no additional money for spec ed kids; unlike the public schools. If hat is true, it provides a powerful incentive for public schools to have large numbers of kids diagnosed and no such incentive for charters. Mostl spec ed kids fall into the ADD/ADHD/SLD realm, I expect, and don’t require much in the way of speciaized services. A deaf child or a child needing speech therapy is probably less likely to move if the charters don’t have to offer services for them. Do they? Or do they still get speech therapy from public schools if they’re in a charter?

    • Disabled students have a right to special services whether they attend a traditional public, charter or private school. Charters usually receive additional funding for special ed students, though I think Michigan charters do not. (It’s an odd funding formula.) Some charters contract with the nearby district; others form a consortium with other charters. And, of course, some do it all in house.

  3. “It would be easy to do: Just hand out more learning disability diagnoses and keep students from leaving special ed.”

    Makes me think of the old saying, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions…”

  4. Better would be to tie “special ed” to GAF scales that are given by a medical professional or hospital team after an assessment. Anyone can have a learning disability, but this would separate the people who really need extra help from those who would do just fine anywhere.

    • I hear this often, that charter schools don’t push out students with disabilities. So can someone explain why, round about January, I always get 1 or 2 new enrollees with IEPs, whose parents tell me that the charter school said “they weren’t able to best serve their needs” or “the neighborhood school is better suited to your child?” So what’s up -are the parents lying to me?

  5. Joanne:

    I am a school choice supporter and an attorney representing disabled students in South Florida public schools. New York City, where I’m from, is a special case in almost aspect of life, including charter schools. In addition to oodles of private money pouring into NYC charter schools in general, Mayor Bloomberg has laudably ensured that NYC charters receive the same special ed funding as traditional public schools. That is most definitely not the case in Florida or the vast majority of other cities (small and large) in the country. Charters in NYC represent nearly the top of what can be achieved for struggling readers and learning disabled students nationwide in my opinion. And that is truly wonderful news for those students. It’s not necessarily good news for NYC students with other types of disabilities, such as Autism, speech and language disabilities and anecdotally behavior problems, however. More can be done for them in NYC and elsewhere in charters.

    Allison Hertog

  6. Crimson Wife says:

    As parent of an autistic child, I think a lot of it is self-selection against applying because the charters do not have the kind of support services in place that traditional publics have. I applied to the charter Montessori school for my older two children (did not win slots in the lottery) but I probably won’t for my autistic child because she is unlikely to be successful in their program.