GAO wades into charter-school special ed

Publicly funded independent, or charter, schools educate fewer children with disabilities than traditional public schools, suggests a new report by the Government Accountability Office. But the report, reported by Education Week here, notes that there are a number of contributing factors that make clear conclusions difficult:

"Several factors may help explain why enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools differ, but the information is anecdotal. For example, charter schools are schools of choice, so enrollment levels may differ because fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools. In addition, some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling. Further, in certain instances, traditional public school districts play a role in the placement of students with disabilities in charter schools. In these instances, while charter schools participate in the placement process, they do not always make the final placement decisions for students with disabilities. Finally, charter schools’ resources may be constrained, making it difficult to meet the needs of students with more severe disabilities."

Closer to home, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies says the state's charters are doing their part to educate students with special needs.

According to MAPSA's data, charters educate slightly fewer students with special-ed individual education plans (10 percent vs. 13 percent), but there are many reasons for the discrepancy and they match those in the GAO report, said Dan Quisenberry. Charters tend to be smaller, and may lack the staff and facilities to handle some special-ed students. They still must accept them under law, but the fact the schools are less well-equipped than the local traditional school may discourage parents from enrolling in the first place.

Of those students with IEPs, most have some form of learning disability or language/speech impairment. More than 73 percent of charter-school special ed students fall into those categories, vs. 60.8 in traditional schools. But as the disabilities become more serious, traditional schools take on more of those students. Those with hearing impairments, severe multiple impairments, autism spectrum disorder or early-childhood delay are more likely to attend a traditional school district's program.

Quisenberry said an IEP can be temporary, and charters work to get students free of them whenever possible.

"The goal is to get them out of special ed and reduce the need for services," he said.

In March, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan issued a wide-ranging report on special-education financing in the state. A blog commenting on the study and specifically on comparisons between charters and traditional schools noted, "(From 2000-2010), the percentage of students with IEPs enrolled in charters increased from 5.4 percent to 9.7 percent – a greater proportion of students with IEPs chose this educational alternative."

The GAO report said the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is conducting compliance reviews related to charter schools’ recruitment and admission of students with disabilities in three states.

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years inFort Wayne,Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.

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Tue, 06/26/2012 - 10:47am
The proponents of charter schools find it to their advantage to keep achievement scores as high as possible to "prove" their case, and Repug politicians like it that way so they can funnel more money into that system. It is all a big scam to dismantle public education and rid the state of a highly paid, organized labor group. It is the corporatization of AmeriKa.
Tue, 06/26/2012 - 11:28am
A Michigan charter school's funding is the same as that for a Michigan public school. When a child with a "more severe" disability is not accepted by a charter school and is part of the enrollment of a public school, the public school accepts the cost. This taxes the resources of the public school just like it would impact the charter. As charters take more students, the public schools have less of a funding base to make up the cost of the more expensive to serve special education students. The second paragraph of the article says that the public schools have more resources. Yes, the structure to serve special education students has been developed over time and the human and physical resources are in place. However, the financial resources are equal for the charter and the public school. I am going to use some numbers that might help this to make sense (I am using whole numbers and the amounts that are not real, but are representative). Let's say a traditional student costs $10,000 to educate. A child with a learning disability might cost $12,000 to educate. But a child with profound Autism might cost $40,000 to educate. A more severely impaired child might cost $50,000. So when a child has a learning disability the school only has to make up the $2000 difference. With a child with Autism the school has to make up $30,000. When charters do not serve the more expensive to serve children, it is not hard to see that this creates a financial advantage for charter schools. Finally, Mr. Quisenberry said an IEP can be temporary, and charters work to get students free of them whenever possible “The goal is to get them out of special ed and reduce the need for services,” he said. This implies that public schools don’t want to decertify kids, which is not true. Public schools have the same incentive as charters to get kids off of the special education rosters.
Wed, 06/27/2012 - 11:03am
“The goal is to get them out of special ed and reduce the need for services,” he said. - Noble goal, but easily used to justify decertification as a means to cut costs/services and increase returns for "for profit" charter schools. This is one of the reasons charter schools should under no circumstances be "for profit" organizations! You cannot serve both the profit motive and the desire to provide a quality education at the same time. Profit and greed will always win out. Michigan now has more "for profit" charter schools than any state in the country. Many of these take Michigan education dollars out of state for corporations based outside of the state. Do we want to channel our tax dollars to other states???
Thu, 06/28/2012 - 3:31pm
No one even touched on the cost of transportation for special needs students. Holly Area Schools spends 1/3 of its transportation budget to transport special needs students. 70% of that was reimbursed through special education funds. The remainder (nearly $250,000) had to come from somewhere as Janofmi points out above. A child with an IEP who needs transportation and an assistant - how many of them attend charter schools? And what about homeless children who must be transported under the unfunded mandate known as the McKinny-Vento Act? Are charter schools mandated to transport their homeless students from wherever they may move to?