Marcus Winters has an excellent new study on charter schools and special education. Why are there large gaps between the percentages of students classified as disabled in charter and traditional public schools? A large part of the explanation — about 80% of the difference — can be explained by the fact that charters are just less likely to classify students as disabled and more likely to declassify them. That is, charters have students with almost the same distribution of true disabilities as found in traditional public schools, they just don’t put labels on as many of them. Here’s how Marcus put it:
The gap in special education rates between charter and traditional public schools grows considerably as students progress from kindergarten through third grade. A large part (80 percent) of the growth in this gap over time is that charter schools are less likely than district schools to classify students as in need of special education services and more likely to declassify them….
…the results do not suggest that charter schools are refusing to admit or are pushing out students with special needs. In fact, more students with previously identified disabilities enter charter schools than exit them as they progress through elementary grade levels…
By far, the most substantial growth in the special education gap occurs in the least severe category, that of specific learning disability. Rates of classification in what might be considered the more severe (and less subjective) categories of special education—autism, speech or language impairment, or intellectual disability—remain quite similar in charter and traditional public schools over time.
So… charter schools are not taking on students with dramatically different true disabilities; the traditional public schools are just more strongly inclined to classify the same kind of student as disabled. And the traditional public schools mostly do this in the more subjective categories of disability, like specific learning disability.
These findings follow the same pattern as what Patrick Wolf, David Fleming, and John Witte discovered with special education and private schools participating in Milwaukee’s voucher program. Schools of choice appear to be open to students with disabilities but aren’t as bureaucratically inclined to label students as disabled as are traditional public schools.