Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from New York’s charter and traditional public schools to help explain why it is that charters enroll fewer special-education (SpEd) students. Just as CRPE previously argued, diagnosing and addressing this gap (around 4 percent, according to earlier estimates) requires nuance—and New York State lawmakers made a serious mistake by rushing enrollment quotas into law three years ago. Winters examined students in Kindergarten through third grade from the 2008–09 to 2011–12 academic years, targeting twenty-five charter elementary schools that participated in enrollment lotteries in order to compare lottery winners and losers. He emerged with four key findings. First, the primary driver of the SpEd gap is the type of student who applies to attend a charter in Kindergarten: Those with autism and speech impairments were less likely to apply to charter schools in the first place. And though this study cannot tell us why, it tells us that parents of SpEd students switch schools a lot until they find the right fit for their child. Second, charters are less likely to indicate that students need SpEd services, and they’re more likely to declassify students who are “special needs”; specifically, students in charters are more likely to have their Individualized Education Program (IEP) classification removed by Year 4 than those in traditional schools. (Since these are schools of choice, one must assume that parents agree with shedding these labels.) Third, more students in general education are leaving districts for charter schools, which has the effect of skewing the SpEd percentages in each sector—in short, more SpEd students are staying in school districts, and more general-education students are enrolling in charters. And fourth, the growth in the SpEd gap over time occurs almost exclusively in the category of “specific learning disability”—which is arguably the most subjective category. As a whole, these data indicate that charters are not rejecting or pushing out SpEd students; indeed, they lead us to wonder if enrollment quotas will, in the end, force charters to label kids unnecessarily. New York ought to reconsider its ill-informed law—and other states considering a similar policy should take heed.

Marcus Winters, Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools (Seattle, WA: Center on Reinventing Public Education, September 2013).

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