Policy Study

Special Education Accountability

Structural Reform to Help CA Charter Schools Make the Grade


According to Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2004: Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards,” approximately 6.6 million children receive special education services in the United States. This means that more than 12 percent of American students in kindergarten through 12th grade are assigned to the special education system. Approximately 67 percent of disabled students have specific learning disabilities (SLD) or speech or language impairments. Fewer than 12 percent have disabilities associated with significant cognitive impairments, such as mental retardation or traumatic brain injury.

Charter schools in the United States serve a relatively small number of special education students. According to the most recent survey from The Center for Education Reform, about 3,000 charter schools in the United States serve approximately 800,000 children. If special education students represent between 7 and 10 percent of charter school enrollment this means charter schools are educating between 56,000 and 80,000 special education students.

In a 2003 study of 12 states, the average traditional school enrolled a higher percentage of special education students (except Washington, D.C.) than charter schools did, especially those with the most costly disabilities. Similarly, charter schools operators in the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey reported that 7.8 percent of their students had Individual Education Plans (IEPs) compared with 16.1 percent of traditional public school students. Likewise, in a 2003 charter school study, RAND researchers found that approximately 7.6 percent of California charter school students were given an IEP in contrast to 8.9 percent of students in conventional schools. RAND also found that California charter schools reported that 1.3 percent of their overall student populations were severely disabled. Conventional public schools reported that 1.1 percent of students were severely disabled. Overall, evidence suggests that charter schools may serve slightly fewer special education students, and these lower percentages are often automatically assumed as evidence that charter schools are not serving special education students.

Yet, based on anecdotal evidence, RAND researchers speculate that charter schools may have a philosophical difference and “choose not to give marginal students an IEP out of a belief that the stigma of special education may cause more harm than benefit to the child.” Congruently, a Reason Foundation 2003 Survey of California charter schools finds that school directors reported using aggressive early intervention strategies and remediation strategies to help reduce the rate of special education. In 2004 there has been a renewed interest in better academic outcomes for special education students. In “Quality Counts 2004,” Education Week examines the issues surrounding special education and accountability. The report notes that “within a decade, federal law requires that all students-including those with disabilities-be performing at the “proficient” level on state tests.” This requirement has caused controversial headlines. In December 2003 CNN headlines announced that “Special education students skew test results” and lead to too many failing schools. A January 2004 New York Times editorial suggested “Critics of No Child Left Behind want to abandon disabled children by counting them out of the push for higher standards.”

These headlines reflect the tension between those educators who worry that schools will be unfairly penalized for the low academic performance of special education students and those educators who are concerned that schools have not been accountable for the academic performance of disabled children.

Several issues surround academic accountability for special education students in charter schools. Some of these issues characterize charter schools alone and some mirror the national debate over providing accountability for all special education students. While special education accountability is difficult for all schools, charter schools face unique challenges. Most charters are small and do not have economies of scale to reduce the cost of special education services. And most charters have fewer special education resources available than traditional public schools. Many charter operators lack oversight and control over the resources that are available to them, thus the quality of their special education services relies on the quality of special education services in their authorizing school district.

Special education accountability has played a role in the closure of a few charter schools nationwide. For example, in 2003 the Illinois State Board of Education revoked the Thomas Jefferson Charter School’s charter when it failed to achieve compliance with federal special education law; in Ohio, the state Department of Education cited the Summit Academy of Canton for special education failures; and the Arizona Department of Education reported that charter schools receive more special education complaints than traditional public schools. Yet, charter schools have also been celebrated for their full inclusion of special education students, their small school size and focus on individualized instruction, and their prevention strategies that many parents say helps their children to learn.

Charter schools meet two of the federal government’s most important goals regarding special education students. First, by including special education students in regular classrooms, charter schools successfully provide disabled students with a quality education in the “least restrictive environment.” Second, charter schools use aggressive early intervention strategies to keep students performing at grade level and reduce the rate of special education by preventing students from being labeled as special education in the first place.

Anecdotal evidence, survey data, and preliminary research indicate that California charter schools do a better job of meeting “inclusion” goals by educating disabled students with their non-disabled peers, using individualized curriculum and small class sizes to meet the instructional needs of special education students, and using early intervention strategies to catch learning problems early and avoid the “wait to fail” special education model. However, most of these outcomes have not been sufficiently validated by control group research or by analyzing student achievement data for special education students enrolled in charter schools. Testing charter school special education models requires structural reforms in special education financing at the charter school level and testing and reporting requirements for small group sizes under the No Child Left Behind federal legislation.

This study examines several issues involved in special education accountability and makes recommendations based on those issues.