Think before you write special-education quotas into charter law

The Thanksgiving holiday may have drawn attention away from some noteworthy analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which called into question whether states should mandate special-education enrollment targets for charter schools, as New York State has done.

Why? Consider what CRPE found when it compared special-education enrollment patterns at charter schools and traditional schools throughout New York:

  • Enrollment patterns of high-need students at charter middle and high schools are indistinguishable from those at school districts;
  • Whatever discrepancy exists, it’s found mostly between charter schools and district schools at the elementary level;
  • And there is variation among charter authorizers; some authorizers oversee charters whose special education enrollments mirror those at district schools.

In other words, CRPE argues, a statewide difference in charter and district enrollments is too simplistic of a comparison. But even analyzing the variation at each grade level is no easy task. For instance, why would charter elementary schools concerned about their performance marks discriminate against special-education students if state testing doesn’t begin until the third grade? Could it be that charter schools are less likely to identify a student as having special needs (as the New York City Charter School Center has suggested) or that specialized district preschool programs “feed” a greater share of students into district elementary schools?

A statewide difference in charter and district special-education enrollments is too simplistic of a comparison.

The fact that these questions persist implies that the 2010 state legislature rushed these enrollment targets into law without waiting to find out why some charters enroll fewer students with disabilities.

This is all starting to sound familiar. Five months ago, in a publicized exchange, Success Academy Charter Schools chief Eva Moskowitz urged the SUNY Charter Schools Institute to convince legislators to change the law. The quotas that would beset charter schools, Moskowitz argued, would institutionalize what she called “the perverse incentives” that drive district schools to over-identify students as needing special education (and the extra funding that comes with it).

SUNY and the legislature should heed that warning and the recommendations from CRPE. “Rather than using blunt policy instruments such as enrollment targets,” CRPE concludes, “state policy leaders and authorizers would be wise to invest in research to identify where under-enrollment of students with disabilities exists in charter schools and what might explain it, and work with the charter school community to develop innovative strategies that address specific problems.”

Good advice. Let’s hope New York and other states considering similar quotas agree.

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