- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has made four grants since July related to helping charter schools cater to students with disabilities, including a $1.2 million grant to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools “to elevate policy-advocacy for students with disabilities in charter schools,” Chalkbeat reports.
- Other grants include $300,000 to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools “to support national charter policy-advocacy on growth, quality and special education integration”; $700,000 to the National Center for Learning Disabilities “to help build an evidence base for supporting students with disabilities”; and $1.2 million to the Center on Reinventing Public Education “to identify the instructional, curricular, organizational, cultural, and policy conditions associated with effective delivery of special education in charter schools.”
- Deputy Director Don Shavely told Chalkbeat the organization plans to study what has worked in the past and help find scalable programs to implement at more schools in the future, adding that the investment is directed at charters because they have historically underserved students with disabilities.
Though charter schools — as well as public schools — are required to serve students with disabilities, studies have shown that the percentage of students with special needs served tends to be less than in public schools. In a 2013 study, based on 2010-11 data of charter schools in 27 states, the percentage of students labeled with special needs was 8%, compared with a public school rate of 13%. However, the study also indicated that charter schools were serving English language learners at a higher rate than public schools.
Researchers have not been able to pin down the primary reason for this difference. Because charter schools are schools of choice, it may be that more parents simply feel that their students with disabilities are better off in public schools, where special needs services have been traditionally centered. Charter schools may also not label students with special needs as often as public schools.
However, some charter school critics have suggested more sinister reasons. Students with special needs who attend charter schools tend to be disciplined more harshly than in public school settings, and lower numbers of students with special needs can influence school performance ratings. Others feel that charter schools are simply not recruiting these students in enough numbers and are underserving the ones who are there.
Whatever the rate, students with special needs do thrive in some charter school settings. The investment in research in this area by the Gates Foundation will hopefully lead to more and better answers.