Last week, the Government Accountability Office issued a perplexing report showing that charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools. The most dispiriting part of report is at end of the report's second line--"little is known about the factors contributing to these differences." GAO's researchers pride themselves on their thoroughness and impartiality, which makes their very tame recommendations at the end of the report all the more remarkable. The report said the Education Department should 1) update existing guidance on schools' obligations to students with disabilities and 2) more research is needed.
Here's what we know. Students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of traditional public schools in 2009-2010 school year. The gap got worse when the enrollment of students with disabilities reached 12 to 16 percent. In that case, only about 13 percent of charter schools compared to 25 percent of traditional public schools had these enrollment levels. The disparity shifted when at least one-fifth of the student population had some type of disability, with a higher percentage of charter schools displaying that kind of enrollment. One Education Department official suggested that there has been a rise in charter schools specifically for students with certain disabilities like autism, which might explain this difference.
Much of the conversation around charter schools has centered on their performance, which is all over the map. The Progressive Policy Institute is hosting an event this week on improving accountability for charter schools. The experts on hand will talk about one of the more galling problems of education generally--closing failing schools--as it relates to charter schools.
We need a lot more information about charter schools to understand their role in the country's educational system. What are the most important questions to ask in studying charter schools? How can we get that data? What information already exists? Who should do the research? How can educators act in the findings of any such research? What can charter schools learn from research about traditional public schools?