Working Paper: Charter Schools and Special Education

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Working Paper: Charter Schools and Special Education

Katharine Parham explores the dual institutions of charter schools and special education, and the unique issues that arise when an institution whose organizational structure is grounded in autonomy is forced to comply, by law, with significant regulatory demands.

From the dawn of the charter movement, the subject of charter schools and special education has generated significant controversy.

Albert Shanker cautioned in a Washington Post op-ed in 1994 that the freedom from state and local regulations sought for charter schools would mean control over admissions and thus exclusion of “difficult-to-educate students.” A decade later, Martin Carnoy and his co-authors documented in The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement (2005) that high-achieving charter middle schools enrolled far more students with strong academic records than neighboring public schools as well as far fewer English-language learners and students with special needs. Similarly, Gary Miron and his co-authors documented in a 2011 study of a major charter management organization (CMO) that it not only managed to screen out a disproportionate number of underperforming students but also shed those who failed to fulfill behavioral and academic expectations. In a 2018 study, Peter Bergman and Isaac McFarlin Jr. documented that charter schools were significantly less responsive than traditional public schools to inquiries from parents of potential applicants with special needs.

Substantiating the concerns of Shanker and the findings of scholars subsequently analyzing this issue was a 2012 report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office determining that in 2008-2009, 11.3 percent of students in traditional public schools were classified with special needs while 7.7 percent of students in charter schools belonged to the same cohort; in 2009-10, the numbers were 11.2 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively.

In “Charter Schools and Special Education: Institutional Challenges and Opportunities for Innovation,” Katharine Parham explores this gap and the evolution of federal law designed to prevent discrimination against students with special needs. Parham, a doctoral candidate in education policy at Teachers College, concedes the existence of “discriminatory practices, such as ‘cropping off’ service to students whose disabilities make them among the costliest to educate, counseling out students with severe needs, or advising families of students with disabilities not to apply.” However, Parham also cites variation in rates of classification of special needs by charter schools and traditional public schools as well as disparities in funding that explain some of the gap. In addition, she analyzes potential remedies for improving the provision of special education by charter schools.

Dispassionate, clear, and concise, this working paper should prove instructive and helpful to policymakers and scholars alike.

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE
August 10, 2020

Coming soon: Helen Ladd and Mavzuna Turaeva on charter schools and segregation in North Carolina; Francisco Lagos on the impact of Chile’s Inclusion Law of 2015; and Kfir Mordechay on school choice and gentrification in New York.

Published Monday, Aug. 10, 2020