A quick skim of the blogs and Twitter and it looks like this new GAO report on charters and special education has everyone to the barricades claiming it validates everything they’ve been saying about charters or is just all wrong. Read it for yourself, it’s a sensible report but raises as many questions as it answers. Mike Petrilli points out that special education enrollment rates vary by school in the traditional public sector, too. That’s true, but there is still an aggregate under-enrollment in the charter sector.
There seem to be a host of reasons for that and the GAO suggests several. There are issues charters need to address as well as larger factors, for instance parental preference and geography. But the ability of single-schools to serve students with severe disabilities is a big factor (as Mike rightly points out we don’t expect that in the traditional sector). Some charters don’t use the usual IEP-style special education approaches for student with moderate issues so they appear on paper to have fewer special need students. The disparities by type of disability are not constant and charters are not always the underrepresented sector – so the data to seem to indicate that disability type matters to this conversation. Likewise some variance by state, too, so policy matters as well. Again, a lot of factors so plenty of issues for people to seize on to make their particular point.
The report isn’t the indictment of charters that some claim and one can support charter schooling (I do) but still see a problem in this data and issues that warrant attention as the sector evolves. Special education is a complicated challenge for all schools and the outcomes for students remain dreadful so no one has a high horse here. For charters the answer isn’t quotas or any of the other crude ideas being floated but ideas like requiring charter authorizers to ensure the schools they authorize have an effective balance overall or pooling resources – as some states and traditional public schools do now – make more sense. They’re debating a measure like that in New York right now. In my experience, the issue of how to ensure equity for special education students, which isn’t new at all, is something that the leaders of high-performing charters and charter school networks are pretty attuned to and thinking about. Unfortunately, if the rhetoric around the new GAO report is any indication they ought not expect much help in addressing it, not only from their critics but from too many supporters, too.