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.

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