This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Why are special education students more scarce in charter schools than in regular public schools in Pennsylvania?
This is a key question raised in the state’s five-year evaluation of its charter schools, published last year. It merits serious investigation, some special education advocates say.
The state’s charter school law forbids charters to discriminate on the basis of disability.
Western Michigan University researchers Gary Miron, Christopher Nelson, and John Risley, who wrote the Pennsylvania charter school evaluation, found that three-fourths of the state’s charter schools had a lower proportion of students with IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) than the statewide average.
Overall, only 8.5 percent of Pennsylvania charter school students (excluding gifted students) had IEPs, compared with 13 percent of noncharter public school students statewide. If not for two charters with very high percentages of special education students, the low special ed enrollment rate at Pennsylvania charter schools would have been even lower.
Alice Heller, who heads the Philadelphia School District’s charter school office, has also noticed the discrepancy.
"The number of special ed students in a charter school should mirror the number of special ed students in a public school," she observed. "If you go through the demographics of our charter schools, some of them are way off. Some have 1 percent or no percent."
She said she would expect to find from 10 to 15 percent of a school’s students in special education.
"That is something that we intend to research because it is a curious thing," Heller said.
The state’s evaluation report also makes the observation that charter schools are more likely to serve students with mild disabilities, and the proportion of students with IEPs who have severe or moderate disabilities is three times higher in traditional public schools than in charters.
However, the Pennsylvania charter school evaluation did not find any more dissatisfaction among parents of students with special needs, compared with other parents.
Some charter school parents might disagree. Len Rieser of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania noted that the Center has handled many complaints from parents about special education in charter schools.
According to Rieser, some children have been illegally discouraged or even barred from enrolling in charters because of their disabilities; in other cases, the charter was unable or unwilling to provide the child with the special services needed.
The state’s five-year evaluation observed that while some parents were harsh in their criticism of charters, others were enthusiastic about how well charter schools were meeting their students’ special needs.
"Some charter schools appear highly successful in serving students with special needs, while others appear unable (or according to some critics, unwilling) to serve such students," the authors wrote.
The report by Miron, Nelson, and Risley did not determine what is keeping special education students away from many charter schools, but did report that staff at many charter schools "complained that they lacked the human and material resources to optimally meet all their students’ needs."
Part of the problem has to do with Pennsylvania’s charter school structure, Rieser said.
"The charter school law made each charter completely independent, free from involvement with the local school district or even other charter schools" he explained. "The charters wanted that independence, but each charter has only its own resources to draw on when serving kids with disabilities, and that can be tough for a small school."
Some critics say charter schools are sensitive to the economics of special education and avoid enrolling students who are expensive to educate unless the reimbursements they will receive are adequate.
But there are other theories about the low numbers of special education students in many charters. For example, families with special needs students may have deeper relationships with staff in traditional public schools and therefore be less likely to switch schools.
Will anyone be investigating this issue?
Heller, for one, said her office at the District would be ratcheting up its monitoring of charter schools on providing access to students with disabilities and other issues.
The evaluation of Pennsylvania charter schools by is available on the web at www.wmich.edu/evalctr/charter/pa_5year.