It has been widely reported that charter schools enroll fewer students with disabilities and few of the students they enroll have severe disabilities.

The California Teachers Association and the United Teachers of Los Angeles reviewed public records to document the enrollments of students with disabilities in charter schools in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland.

The study is titled “State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students.”

https://www.utla.net/news/new-study-reveals-privately-run-charter-schools-under-enroll-students-disabilities

The study found that charters enroll fewer students with disabilities than public schools. Charter enrollment is 11% compared to more that 14% in public schools. Furthermore, charters enroll fewer students with severe disabilities. They avoid the students who are most expensive to educate. Consequently these charter policies cost the three districts between $64 million to $97 million each year.

In some of the charter networks, fewer than 10% of students are entitled to special education services. One celebrated charter in Oakland, the American Indian Model Schools, known for its high test scores, has fewer than 3%. The 12 Rocketship charter schools enroll only 7.34% students with disabilities. The two charters created by former Governor Jerry Brown in Oakland enroll fewer than 10% of students with disabilities.

CONCLUSIONS:

Advocates for students with disabilities have long held that charter schools do not enroll, and therefore do not serve, students with disabilities at the same levels as public school districts—either in overall enrollment or level of need—which leads to a greater fiscal impact for public school districts.

Our analysis affirms these concerns for the first time in the three California school districts we examined. Because of the structure for funding special education in California—which arguably disincentivizes enrolling students with disabilities in charter schools by funding based on total enrollment, and not need—we have no reason to believe that similar results would not be borne out in other districts throughout the state.

These findings are particularly important at this point in time in California, when a growing body of evidence shows that the rapid growth of charter schools has led to growing fiscal impact for public school districts. As policymakers at all levels of government weigh how to best meet the needs of California students equitably, we hope they will take these findings into account.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR POLICYMAKERS

The aim of our report was to provide an in-depth analysis of special education enrollment to quantify the anecdotal evidence so often cited by public education advocates. However, our analysis affirms the need for policy changes brought forth by advocates that would begin to address the inequities described in this report. The following represent just a few of those proposals:

1. Increase Federal Funding for Special Education: Perhaps the most obvious solution to these inequities would be for the federal government to meet its original 1975 obligation to fund 40 percent of public special education costs. This language is already in federal statute and requires only the political will to push Congress to budget the necessary resources. Federal lawmakers should make the original promise the absolute floor, rather than the ceiling, of funding for students with disabilities.

2. Federal Civil Rights Monitoring: The Office of Civil Rights within the US Department of Education must independently and proactively monitor student access to and service within charter schools across the nation. While some states are capable of effectively monitoring their education systems for civil rights abuses, the federal government’s total abdication of this power to prioritize equity and access has not, and will not, lead to a safer and more responsive system for students and their families.

3. Accountability and Oversight by the CA Department of Education (CDE) and Authorizers:
The CDE should hold accountable both the charter schools that are underserving special education students, and the authorizers who are responsible for their oversight. This would not be the first time a state has moved to protect the rights of special education students, as the New York State Education Department’s Office of Special Education recently investigated and concluded the practices at Success Academy Charter Schools were violating the civil rights of special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both Success Academy and the New York City Department of Education (Success Academy’s authorizer) were held accountable and corrective action was required.8

4. Re-Examine California’s Model for Funding Special Education to Account for Special Education Enrollment Disparities Between Districts and Charter Schools: California’s system of allocating special education funding based on total student population counts, as opposed to targeted counts of students by special education eligibility categories, has led to harmful fiscal impacts for the school districts we studied due to charter schools significantly under-enrolling these students. We have no reason to believe the results would be different for other districts.
This funding model makes two critical assumptions: that need does not vary by network or location, and that all schools are open to serving all students. These assumptions require further serious investigation because the current system actively discourages charter schools from both identifying students with disabilities, and perversely incentivizes the creation of barriers to access through enrollment.

5. Require Charter Schools to Join the Same SELPA as the District in Which They Are Located:

California policymakers should return the responsibility of coordinating special education services for charter schools to local Special Education Local Plan Areas (SELPAs), and end the practice of allowing charter schools to opt-out of their local SELPA in favor of remote charter- only SELPAs that are sometimes hundreds of miles away.
As it stands, from a functional perspective, a student moving between schools within the same local area may have inconsistent accommodations and experiences due to schools belonging to different SELPAs. This undermines continuity of services, which is of utmost importance for special education students. This opt-out also undermines the fiscal stability of local school districts which, as our analysis found, are serving a disproportionately larger share of special education students without a larger share of funding.

6. Conduct Educational and Fiscal Impact Analyses When Considering New Charter School Petitions and Renewals: As fiduciaries of their local education agencies, and as elected officials entrusted to protect all students’ best interests, charter school authorizers must make economic and education impact analyses an essential part of both the charter school authorization and reauthorization processes. Elected officials, the authorizing body, and the public must have independent information about the impact of opening a new charter school in an established education community. Information should cover the full learning needs of all students, including essential topics regarding enrollment, retention, discipline, and the financial impact on the community and the neighborhood’s public schools. Districts must be allowed to use the findings of these impact reports as justification for denying new charter school petitions that will have an adverse fiscal impact on district programs and services.

7. Charter School Site-Based Special Education Committees: Coupled with both state and local governance oversight, charter operators themselves can take a proactive role to ensure they are open to and meeting the needs of all children in the community in which they operate. Each charter school campus should create a site-based special education committee. As those who spend the most time with special education students, both educators and parents are uniquely positioned to lead these committees.