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August 23, 2014, 3:29 am

Report: Charters enroll many disabled

The charter school system has withered under a relentless attack from school districts and politicians bent on breaking the system, but a respite from the assaults appeared in the form of two reports, each independently issued by the United States Government Accountability Office and the National Charter School Research Center, respectively.

Both reports found that charter schools across the country do an adequate job in teaching students with special needs, as compared to traditional public schools.

Released just last week, the GAO’s Charter School Report showed that although charter schools nationwide took in fewer special-needs students than traditional public schools, more than 20 percent of all charter school enrollees have some sort of special need. Although limited in scope — the GAO only visited about a dozen charter schools — the data it collected is telling.

It found that 70 percent of special-needs students in either school system suffer from specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment or from some other sort of health impairment. Charter schools took in more students with emotional health issues than its public school counterparts.

For example, in 2009 — the last year in which a complete data set is available — overall, charter schools enrolled 47.1 percent of students with specific learning disabilities, while traditional public schools admitted 42.7 percent. Broken down further, those numbers show that public schools took in slightly more students who were autistic, developmentally delayed, suffered from visual impairments or otherwise were diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.

Conversely, charter schools nationwide accepted more students that suffered from emotional disturbances; both academic programs taught an equal number of students with traumatic brain injuries or living with an orthopedic impairment.

According to the GAO, 43,912,311 students with disabilities nationwide were enrolled in school in 2010; of that, 42,337,326 were enrolled in traditional public schools, while the charter school system enrolled the remaining 1,574,985.

The good news is that, according to the GAO’s report, Pennsylvania is one of only eight states in which charter schools enroll the same percentage or higher of students with disabilities as compared to traditional public schools. In fact, charter schools in Pennsylvania take in 2 percent more of such students.

It appears the GAO has taken notice of the strides made by the charter school system, and is petitioning traditional school districts and legislators to help the charters.

“The GAO recommends that the Secretary of Education take measures to help charter schools recognize practices that may affect enrollment of students with disabilities by updating existing guidance,” read the GAO’s conclusion, “and conducting additional fact-finding and research to identify factors affecting enrollment levels of these students in charter schools.”

The number of charter schools also remains a point of contention for charter school critics, many of whom have issues with the for-profit model employed by the EMOs — education management organizations.

Is its report, “Hopes, Fears & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2010,” the NCSRC found there are 5,275 independent charter school districts in the nation, and the number has steadily increased since the landmark litigation in the early ’90s allowed for the creation of the charter school system.

NCSRC’s report also shows that Pennsylvania lags behind states such as Texas, California, Arizona and Ohio in terms of the number of charter schools and the charter management organizations which run them; however, Philadelphia has more than 70 charter schools, which, if taken cumulatively, would be the second-largest school district in Pennsylvania.

Similar to the GAO’s findings, the NCSRC’s report also says that both charter school systems and traditional public school districts need to work together to educate all children.

“These leaders have realized that economically, politically and academically, school districts and charter schools can no longer afford to go it alone,” said educator and NCSRC report editor Robin Lake. “Urban school superintendents across the country are realizing that a centrally delivered, one-size-fits-all approach simply is not viable, and that they need partnerships to bring in entrepreneurial talent and mission-driven teams.”