The Government Accountability Office issued a 46-page report on charter schools and students with disabilities, finding that charters enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.
Nationwide in 2009-2010, students with disabilities represented 8.2 percent of all students enrolled in charter schools. In traditional public schools, students with disabilities accounted for 11.2 percent of students.
In the prior year, charter schools enrolled 7.7 percent of students with disabilities, compared with 11.3 percent in traditional public schools.
In Georgia, charter schools had 2 percent fewer disabled students than traditional schools, according to the GAO report, which was based on federal Department of Education data.
GAO draws no conclusions in its straightforward report about why this disparity exists, noting:
Against the backdrop of a growing and changing charter school landscape, we found that enrollment of students with disabilities in the aggregate is lower in charter schools than in traditional public schools.
Whether these enrollment differences will persist or continue to narrow is difficult to predict, given the lack of information about factors underlying these differences and how they affect enrollment levels. By issuing guidance that raises awareness about the practices that might be perceived as an attempt to discourage enrollment, officials in the states we visited have already begun to take steps to forestall the possibility that charter school admission practices play a role in lower enrollment levels in charter schools.
However, the guidance Education issued in 2000, while important in providing basic information to charter schools with respect to students with disabilities, does not provide more detailed information on the acceptability of specific admission practices under applicable civil rights laws. Moreover, while Education sponsored research several years ago that pointed out problems in charter school admission practices, we believe that the study’s findings do not adequately address the range of possible factors affecting enrollment raised in our report.
For its report, the GAO visited 13 charter schools and interviewed staff, writing:
Officials representing about half of the 13 charter schools we visited said that having sufficient resources to serve students with more severe disabilities, including providing a self-contained classroom when needed, was their greatest challenge. For example, two officials said that their school facility could not provide a self-contained classroom. A third official explained that providing a self contained classroom is especially challenging because of the need to provide separate classrooms for each grade grouping as well as teachers.
Thus, if a school had 3rd and 4th graders requiring self-contained classrooms, they would need to have space to accommodate two separate classrooms. The official said that the charter school would not have enough teachers to cover those different grade levels. According to representatives of charter school organizations we interviewed, providing services to students with severe disabilities can be very costly and some charter schools could face severe financial difficulties serving students with very severe disabilities.
Charter schools that cited insufficient resources as a challenge included both charter school LEAs and charter schools within a district. Other resource challenges school officials cited included the cost of specialists’ services, and obtaining staff qualified to serve their students’ needs, such as a bilingual special education teacher or a specialist to teach an autistic child. However, two charter schools within a district said that, because the district provided all services needed, the cost of services was not a challenge. Both charter schools were located in the same school district.
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog