Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Interesting Study on Charter Schools and People with Disabilities in New York State

The Center on Reinventing Public Education yesterday put out this report evaluating the enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools in New York State.  It's well known that on average charter schools in New York enroll fewer students with disabilities than do district-run public schools.  This report attempts to disaggregate the data a bit to try to figure out what is going on.  The results are interesting, though more suggestive of areas for future research than conclusive of anything.  Here are the study's findings (the second and third findings are the key ones):
  • The statewide difference in charter and district enrollment is too simplistic of a comparison: Looking across New York State, charter schools on average serve a smaller share of special education students than do the state’s district-run schools, but the distribution and range of enrollment are not far off what we see in the district-run schools. 
  • Charter middle and high school enrollments are indistinguishable from district enrollments: At the middle and high school levels, the distribution of special education enrollment in charter schools looks very similar to the distribution of special education enrollment in district-run schools. This is true statewide and—in most cases—when charter schools are compared to their host districts. 
  • Charter elementary schools show underenrollment: Unlike charter middle and high schools, fewer students with disabilities enroll in charter elementary schools as compared to district- run elementary schools statewide and—in many cases—relative to the charters’ host districts. 
  • There is also variation among charter authorizers: While certain charter school authorizers oversee schools with special education enrollments that closely track those of nearby district-run schools, other authorizers oversee groups of schools that don’t mirror their local district-run schools’ special education enrollments.
It's an interesting study, and one that should advance the discussion, but there's a lot more you'd want to know here.  I'd particularly want to look at three questions:

  1. Whether there is a correlation between performance measures and the disability population of the school.  That is, are the "successful" charter schools, measured by high test scores, ones with disproportionately few students with disabilities?
  2. Whether the same proportion of students with disabilities attend charter middle and high schools in each year of schooling.  That is, do charter middle and high schools start out with a large number of students with disabilities who leave those schools before graduating?
  3. Whether different charter operators (not authorizers) have different percentages of students with disabilities.
One finding I will note from the study that seems quite interesting:  To the extent that charter defenders argue that charter schools can be beneficial by allowing students with disabilities to attend schools that are geared specifically to their disabilities -- and to the extent that folks like me say that sounds like the segregation the disability rights movement has been fighting against -- the study suggests that the facts don't support the defenders' argument or my worry.  The study finds only two charter schools in the state in which more than 35% of the students have disabilities -- and only one in which more than 50% do.

Much more to come I'm sure.

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