The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report this Tuesday that sparked a flurry of controversy when it found that, on average, charter schools are enrolling fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. The report found that around 8 percent of students enrolled at charter schools have disabilities, compared to the 11 percent of students at public schools. The reaction to this has been predictable, as a common talking point against charters is that they only take the “best kids” (a concept insulting in its own right) and the others are left to drown in the public school system. Diane Ravitch and others see this as confirmation that charter schools are discriminating against students with disabilities. Are they right?
The report itself admits that it has no conclusive findings on the cause of this discrepancy, but there is some evidence that points to a number of possible factors including: a lack a resources, school capacity, location of the schools, parental preference for public schools, and the possibility that charters are discouraging some students with disabilities from enrolling. Of these, only the last one senses anything sinister going on, and even then the report says this is based on “anecdotal accounts.” I have no doubt that there are charters out there that are turning away students with disabilities, but any accusations of a widespread conspiracy to keep out students with disabilities is based on selective evidence. Additionally, the report points out that several states (including Ohio) actually have a higher percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in their charter schools than traditional public schools. Charter schools, for better or worse, all have their own idiosyncrasies, and they tend to operate very differently from each other in their attempt to provide the best education for students.
Michael Petrilli writes for Education Next elaborates on this, saying that the GAO does not understand how special education works:
But there’s another point that’s overlooked entirely: No single public school is expected to serve students with every single type of disability. In fact, traditional public schools regularly “counsel out” students with severe disabilities because they don’t have the resources and expertise to serve them. Many school districts operate separate schools (or programs) precisely for those kids.
Petrilli’s point is that charters are not in districts, and they are forced to operate alone. If a charter school has a student with a severe disability that needs to seek alternative services, the only choice they have is to return to a traditional public school. As it stands, public school districts are much better equipped to provide the necessary services to students with severe disabilities. In fact, it would be financially irresponsible to allocate the amount of funding necessary for every charter school to be able to have the proper staff and technology to address the specific needs of every student that walks through the front doors.
While I do agree with Petrilli on his larger point, he really only looks at students with severe disabilities. It would be interesting to look at the statistics on only students with mild-to-moderate disabilities, and see if there is still a discrepancy between charter and traditional public schools. Charter schools should still be expected to have the ability to serve the vast majority of students with disabilities. This does not appear to be the case now, but it is more due to a lack of resources than a concerted effort to keep disabled students out.
The GAO report is not a cause for panic. It did not show that students with disabilities are being denied services, just that they are receiving them from different schools. As long as charter schools are open to all students, and there is no foul play in the form of selective enrollment, I don’t see a problem. It is not the charter’s fault if parents and students choose to attend a public school that is able to offer better and more specialized services. The government should look further into this issue, but a kneejerk reaction of imposing new restrictions on charters is not going to fix anything.