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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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