Are Charter Schools Actually Serving Students Better?

A GAO study has found that charter schools enroll 3% fewer special education students than traditional public schools. Disabled students represent 11.2% of students attending traditional schools — and only 8.2% of students enrolled in charter schools for the 2009-10 year. Data was sourced from the Department of Education.

Lisa Snell, writing for the Reason Foundation Out of Control Policy blog, finds the premise of the GAO report suspect. She draws a distinction between serving a child and merely enrolling them, or labeling a wider variety of children as special education. Indeed, Snell suggests that while the original analysis implies that public schools are serving special needs children better by having a higher rate of special education designation, an equally like explanation is that public schools are more experienced at gaming the funding system.

There has been significant debate over the degree to which the largest special education category of specific learning disability (SLD) reflects a true disability or an instructional failure in reading in the early grades. As education researcher Jay P. Greene has long pointed out in articles such as the “The Myth of the Special Education Burden,” specific-learning disabilities has been the fastest growing category of disability and has grown at a rate much faster than other categories of special education.

A report from the President’s Commission on Special Education in 2002 suggested that 80% of children with an SLD diagnosis were simply never taught to read properly. SLD diagnoses account for 40% of special education students.

Snell argues that far from the GAO study figures showing charter schools as failing special education students they actually indicate that charters are serving children much better than traditional public schools.

A plausible explanation for the 3 percent differential between charter schools and traditional schools is that many charter schools do a better job of teaching students to read, have aggressive early-intervention programs, and simply do not label as many children as special education in the first place.

It’s not just that being more stringent and rigorous in the child’s early education heads off later diagnoses of SLF. There is the argument that a child is more likely to get labelled as special education in a public school than a charter, not merely because of funding concerns, but because of a basic philosophical difference between the two institutions. As the 2003 study, Special Education in Charter Schools and Conventional Public Schools, speculated, charters may avoid over labeling for fear of the stigma attached doing more harm to the child than benefit.

There is at least anecdotal evidence that charter schools are working to help students learn on the front end and avoid the special education designation altogether.