BOULDER, CO (November 7, 2013) - There's clear evidence that charter schools enroll significantly fewer special education students than traditional public schools. But why is that?
In Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools, a recent report published jointly by the Manhattan Institute and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Marcus Winters asserted the disparity is not the product of concerted attempts by charter schools to exclude special needs students. Instead, the gap was attributed to lower application rates on the part of families of these students.
A new review published today, however, explains flaws in that report's data, analysis, reasoning and applicability to the broader charter school sector. The report was reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by Julie Mead of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The review is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.
Mead is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the UW-Madison. Her research centers on legal issues related to special education and legal issues raised by various forms of school choice. She is co-author, with Preston Green, of the book Charter Schools and the Law: Establishing New Legal Relationships.
The issue of special-needs-enrollment disparities between charter schools and traditional schools is significant because any such disparities arguably result in a distinct advantage to charter schools when comparing their educational outcomes with traditional schools.
Mead points out that the Winters report does confirm that disparities in special-education enrollment clearly exist in New York City between charter and traditional schools. It also raises interesting issues about application and transfer patterns among families who opt for charter schools and those who don't, and it offers evidence that more research is needed to fully understand the scope and details of the gap between the two sectors.
But Mead also finds extensive grounds to critique the report.
"It neglects any review of related literature and therefore ignores alternate explanations for the statistical patterns found," Mead writes. Relying as it does on a set of data that is restricted and non-representative, the report is constrained by "severe limitations on the generalizability of the findings and the conclusions that may be drawn."
Perhaps most importantly, it provides no evidence for an assertion that the "counseling out" of families of special needs children is minimal, she points out. "Nor does it answer 'why' disparities persist"-the promise made in the report's title. Accordingly, Mead concludes that the report "ultimately fails to provide useful results to inform policymakers."
The Think Twice think tank review project (http://thinktankreview.org) of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) provides the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. The Think Twice think tank review project is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.