A new report by the Manhattan Institute and the Center on Reinventing Public Education finds city charter schools may have a smaller percentage of special education students than district schools because the students are less likely to apply, and more likely to be declassified once they enroll in charters.
Overall, 13.1 percent of charter school students receive special education services compared to 16.5 percent in traditional New York City public schools, according to the New York City Charter School Center. Critics believe charters discourage special-education students from enrolling or staying in their programs, while supporters of charters claim they are doing their best to find and retain the students.
"The results do not suggest that charter schools are refusing to admit or are pushing out students with special needs," said the report's author, Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
Instead, he said, the gap seemed to start in kindergarten.
Overall, 12.6 percent of students in traditional public schools received special education services in their first year, compared to only 5.7 percent of students in charters. The researcher also found those who apply to charter school kindergarten lotteries were less likely to have a disability than kindergarten students in regular schools. Students with autism and speech or language impairments, in particular, were less likely to apply. Winters said the discrepancy deserved more study.
"It may be, for example, that the students were enrolled in specialized pre-school programs that feed into district elementary schools," he wrote. "It is also possible that the parents didn't see the charter schools as an appropriate fit for their child, either because of their own assumptions or because they were discouraged from applying by counselors or by charter school staff."
As the children got older, the report found charters were less likely than district schools to classify students as needing special education services and more likely to declassify them. It also said students with disabilities tended to transfer often in both charter and district schools. But Winters said more students with previously identified disabilities entered charters than left them.
The report looked at kindergarten through third grade enrollments at 25 charter schools between 2008 and 2011.
James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, seized on the finding that charter students with disabilities are more likely to be declassified. He said the report has "a startling implication: mainstream classrooms at New York City charter schools contain many students who, statistically, would have been assigned to special education had they attended district schools."
But Paulina Davis, a staff attorney at the group Advocates for Children in New York City, remained skeptical of the study's conclusions. She said her group still gets calls from parents of children with disabilities who were admitted to charters through the lottery system but didn't enroll because they were told the school was not a good fit.
She also said she has not seen "a lot of variation and flexibility in programming in the charter sector in general for students with disabilities."
Davis noted that few charters, namely John Lavelle Preparatory and the New York City Center for Autism Charter, are set up to serve children in "self-contained" classes that are specifically for students with special needs.
The New York State Education Department and the State University of New York, both of which authorize charters, are setting targets for how many students with disabilities should be served by a charter school, as required by law.
If charter schools offer quality programming for students with disabilities and were held accountable for recruiting and enrolling these students, Davis said this could make parents of children with special needs feel more comfortable about applying to them. But Winters cautioned that it may lead charters to unnecessarily classify students as having disabilities in order to meet a quota. He agreed, however, that more outreach to families was necessary.