THE undeniable success of many public charter schools has embarrassed leaders of lower-performing traditional public schools. In response, establishment critics often claim charter schools only look better in comparison because they discourage special education students from attending.
A new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education blows that argument out of the water. Not only do charter schools accept students with individualized education programs (IEPs), but those students often experience such success at charter schools that they no longer require an IEP. The report focused on schools in the Denver system, but its findings mirror similar conclusions elsewhere.
In kindergarten, the report found 5.9 percent of students in public charter schools were on an IEP, compared with 7.7 percent in traditional public schools. By the eighth grade, that gap widens with 8.4 percent of students in public charter schools on an IEP, compared with 14.2 percent in traditional public schools.
But the center’s report notes much of the increased gap occurs because charter schools are less likely to go the IEP route in the first place. It found 46 percent of the growth in the gap between kindergarten and fifth grade “occurs because charter schools are less likely to classify students as in need of special education services, and more likely to declassify them, than are traditional public schools.”
In a nutshell, students who would be placed on an IEP in a traditional public school are treated like all other students in charter schools. The report notes a separate analysis of New York City charter schools found lower IEP use was due to factors that included intervention strategies. Basically, charter schools rely on IEPs less because they help students achieve success without an IEP.
Some critics claim charter schools effectively force out special education students to inflate academic success. Not true. In fact, if that strategy is being used, the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s findings suggest that traditional public schools most often seek to offload special ed students.
“Students with IEPs in traditional public schools change schools more often than students with IEPs in charter public schools,” the report noted. Five years after enrolling in kindergarten, about 65 percent of charter school students with IEPs were still in their original schools. In comparison, just 37 percent of traditional public school students with IEPs were still in their original schools.
“This finding counters the conventional wisdom that students with IEPs are more likely to leave, or be counseled out, of charter schools,” the report states.
Thus, charter schools actually have a better record of success for students on an IEP than do traditional public schools.
The one area where charter schools may lag is in attracting IEP students in the first place. The report found that “students with identified disabilities are much less likely to apply to charter schools …” But the report also cited preliminary evidence suggesting that parents whose children have IEPs “may not understand that students with special needs have as much right as any other student to enroll in charter schools, which are then required to provide services.”
The center’s report further bolsters the case for charter school success. Instead of trying to concoct half-baked excuses for substandard performance, officials at struggling traditional public schools would be better served to start emulating those charter schools.