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Do LA charter schools really screen out special education students?

Craig Clough | October 5, 2015

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Special ed

LAUSD’s Lowman Special Education Center

Accusations that charter schools screen out special education students or discourage them from enrolling have returned with a controversial plan by the Broad Foundation to expand charter enrollment at LA Unified.

After the president of the LA teachers union, Alex Caputo-Pearl of UTLA, raised the issue a year ago, telling the Los Angeles Times a year ago that “a lot of charters don’t allow special-education or English-language learners,” it resurfaced at a recent UTLA-sponsored rally outside the grand opening the Broad Museum.

But is the accusation true?

Legally, charter schools are not allowed to discourage enrollment from special education students or English learners.

While it may be true that LA Unified’s independent charters have smaller percentages of special education students overall and fewer have students with moderate to severe disabilities, the reasons for any disparity are complex, said Sharyn Howell executive director of the Division of Special Education at LA Unified, who oversees special education services for all district schools and most of its independent charters.

But the discrepancies are not due to screening, she said. And while she may have heard the accusation in the past, Howell said it has become a non-issue.

“Probably in the last two or three years I have not had a parent call me and say a charter school, I wanted to go there, and they discouraged me from coming. I used to get a lot of calls and emails like that, but I’m not getting them anymore,” she told LA School Report.

Because charter schools tend to be smaller and newer than district schools, they may not have had certain types of special education students before, which would tend to discourage more students with the same issues from enrolling, Howell said. But if any such students were to enroll, charters are required by law to provide them appropriate services.

“It’s not that a charter school is turning them away, it’s that the parents don’t go to the door,” she said. “If you have a child for example that has a severe disability, you know from experience and from talking to others that LAUSD has a program for your child because we see many children just like yours and we work with them. When you go to a charter school and you know that they have never had a child like yours, you are worried that they will not know how to work with your child. Some parents have said to me, ‘I don’t want my child to be the guinea pig, the first one there, where people are just learning how to work with my child.'”

There have been a number of studies concluding that charters do not enroll the same numbers of students with moderate or severe disabilities, which cost more to educate.

One 2012 study from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) concluded: “As compared to their traditional public school counterparts, there is evidence that charter schools in large urban districts and throughout the country tend to enroll disproportionately greater numbers of students with high incidence disabilities – such as specific learning disabilities – and lower numbers of students with low incidence, more significant disabilities (e.g., intellectual disabilities and autism) with more educationally intensive and costly needs.”

The latest figures show that special education students at LA Unified’s independent charters make up about 10 percent of the population, compared with 12 percent of traditional schools. Howell also said that district schools have a higher number of students with moderate to severe disabilities.

All of the traditional and independent charter schools at LA Unified are part of the same Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), meaning that the district and its independent charters work together to offer services to special education students. Charters do, however, have the option to provide their own services or join another district’s SELPA, but Howell said not a significant number do.

Howell said some charters used to have application forms that asked if students required special education services but that it is no longer allowed.

Challenges loom for the district if the proposed charter expansion occurs. Every student who leaves the district for an independent charter school takes state and federal dollars along. That leaves the district not only with less money to provide special education services, as required by law. It also reduces the money available for raises, benefits and programs that might otherwise be sustained — and as Howell said, “making it harder to attract special education specialists.”

The draft report outlining the Broad Foundation’s expansion plan makes no mention of special education issues.

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