Eight percent of students at charter schools had disabilities in the 2009-2010 schoolyear, compared with 11 percent at traditional public schools, according to a Government Accountability Office report being released Wednesday.
The difference could be a result of several factors, including fewer parents of special education students choosing to enroll their children, charter schools discouraging disabled students from attending, and constraints on resources making it difficult for charter schools to meet their needs, the report found.
"We know that in many instances the charter schools are breaking down all the old stereotypes about who can learn and who can't learn, whether they're poor or minority or students with disabilities," said Rep. George Miller, senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. "And we want to make sure that the students with disabilities get a chance to participate in that revolution, if you will, that's taking place."
Charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate independently of many of the laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools, have seen enormous growth over the last decade. More than 2 million students now attend charters, and the Obama administration has encouraged their expansion through initiatives like Race to the Top, the $4 billion grant competition. Many states lifted caps on the number of charter schools permitted in order to increase their chances of winning.
Advocates have praised charters for being an innovative alternative to the traditional neighborhood school, but there have been persistent concerns over accountability, access and quality.
The GAO report found significant disparities among states.
About 6 percent of students in New Hampshire charter schools had disabilities, for example, compared to 13 percent at the state's traditional public schools. In Virginia, the number of special education students in charter schools was 11 percentage points higher than in traditional public schools. Overall, however, there were lower rates of special education enrollment at charters in all but eight states: Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming.
Researchers also found there were a higher percentage of charter schools with 20 percent or more disabled students, possibly due to an increase in the number of charters that focus solely on students with disabilities. That trend is something that has many special education advocates concerned. They worry it will lead to increased segregation and could have a negative effect on how much disabled students learn.
Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said she'd like to provide schools with more assistance on special education, but said she believed the lower rates were mostly the result of parental choice.
"If they're not selecting charter schools it's a reflection of where parents decide to send their kids and not so much a reflection on charter schools, in my opinion," she said.
Some charters are known among parents as "disability friendly" and have a larger pool of applicants with special needs, while those with harsher discipline policies applied to disabled students end up receiving significantly fewer, said Rodney Estvan, an education policy analyst for Access Living, an organization aimed at helping the disabled community in Chicago.
"We see very little evidence at this point that the schools are simply refusing to enroll these kids," he said. "But we do see schools where after the kid is there for a year or two, there is a counseling-out process."
Raquel Regalado, a member of the Miami-Dade school board, which oversees the nation's fourth largest school district, said the charter school where she enrolled her daughter for kindergarten refused to let her child attend after she was diagnosed with autism. She's said she's heard from many parents with similar stories.
"The problem was they didn't want to open the door to other special needs children," she said.
The U.S. Department of Education is conducting five compliance reviews regarding special education students and charter schools, and has received 263 complaints over the last three years. The investigations look at recruitment and equal opportunity access, among other areas. The department plans to issue new guidance on special education at charters soon.
"The guidance issued by the last administration is still good law in lots of cases," said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, referring to the Bush administration. "Some of it is outdated given the burgeoning charter movement."
Several academic experts who study charter schools said the figures reported by the federal report were in line with what they expected to see.
"I think it reveals one of the things charter schools have to address and take seriously if they're to make a persuasive argument that they are for all kids," said Tim Knowles, director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.
Knowles noted that some charters work hard not to designate students as special needs, which in some cases is positive, as there is evidence certain groups, such as African American boys, have been disproportionately labeled as special needs students when in fact they are not. In other cases, there may be students who need extra services but are not getting them.
Regalado, whose daughter is now enrolled in a traditional school, said the burden lies with local and state authorities to increase accountability, and with charters to put more resources toward special education.
"This excuse that the charter can't do it because they're too small or it's one institution ... you look at the corporate makeup and you look at their reserves and you know that simply isn't the case and that they're taking advantage of the system," she said.
The GAO report recommends Education Secretary Arne Duncan take measures to help charters recognize practices that could affect the enrollment of disabled students by updating existing guidance.
"This is a little bit of a wake-up call, a reminder that there's more to be done here," Miller said, "but I think the help can be provided on both sides of the ledger."