Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities
GAO-12-543: Published: Jun 7, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 2012.
What GAO Found
Charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, but little is known about the factors contributing to these differences. In school year 2009-2010, which was the most recent data available at the time of our review, approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools.
GAO also found that, relative to traditional public schools, the proportion of charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was lower overall. Specifically, 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. However, when compared to traditional public schools, a higher percentage of charter schools enrolled more than 20 percent of students with disabilities. Several factors may help explain why enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools differ, but the information is anecdotal. For example, charter schools are schools of choice, so enrollment levels may differ because fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools. In addition, some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling. Further, in certain instances, traditional public school districts play a role in the placement of students with disabilities in charter schools. In these instances, while charter schools participate in the placement process, they do not always make the final placement decisions for students with disabilities. Finally, charter schools resources may be constrained, making it difficult to meet the needs of students with more severe disabilities.
Most of the 13 charter schools GAO visited publicized and offered special education services, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities. Most charter school officials said they publicized the availability of special education services in several ways, including fliers and placing ads in the local newspaper. Many charter schools GAO visited also reported tailoring special education services to individuals needs, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities due to insufficient resources. About half of the charter school officials GAO interviewed cited insufficient resources, including limited space, as a challenge.
The U.S. Department of Educations (Education) Office for Civil Rights has undertaken two compliance reviews related to charter schools recruitment and admission of students with disabilities in three states, but has not issued recent guidance covering admission practices in detail, nor has Education conducted recent research about factors affecting lower enrollment in charter schools. The three states GAO visited already have taken steps to monitor charter schools admission practices. In addition, officials in these three states reported prohibiting disability-related questions on charter school admission forms, in part to protect students with disabilities access.
Why GAO Did This Study
While the number of charter schools is growing rapidly, questions have been raised about whether charter schools are appropriately serving students with disabilities. GAO was asked: (1) How do enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools compare, and what is known about the factors that may contribute to any differences? (2) How do charter schools reach out to students with disabilities and what special education services do charter schools provide? (3) What role do Education, state educational agencies, and other entities that oversee charter schools play in ensuring students with disabilities have access to charter schools? GAO analyzed federal data on the number and characteristics of students with disabilities; visited charter schools and school districts in three states selected on the basis of the number of charter schools in the state, among other things; and interviewed representatives of federal, state, and other agencies that oversee charter schools.
What GAO Recommends
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 and conducting additional fact finding and research to identify factors affecting enrollment levels of these students in charter schools. Education agreed with our recommendations.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In May 2014, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued new guidance on the obligations of charter schools to comply with federal civil rights laws. The guidance confirms that the same federal civil rights laws that apply to other public schools apply equally to public charter schools. It highlights critical subjects that have arisen in charter schools, including the schools' obligations to avoid discrimination in admissions practices and the administration of discipline; and to provide a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities.
Recommendation: To help charter schools recognize practices that may affect enrollment of students with disabilities and improve the information available for monitoring and oversight, the Secretary of Education should update existing guidance to ensure that charter schools have better information about their obligations related to the enrollment of students with disabilities.
Agency Affected: Department of Education
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: The Department of Education plans to conduct additional fact finding and research over the next several years to understand the factors affecting enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools. Planned activities may include reviewing state policies, guidance and reports; conducting focus groups with parents of students with disabilities; and compiling case studies of charter schools' experience with students with disabilities. Education has also increased communication among the offices responsible for students with disabilities and charter schools and encouraged their state-level counterparts to do the same. Education reported in July 2014 that the National Charter Schools Resource Center (NCSRC) is preparing a white paper on charter school collaboration to meet students with disabilities needs and case studies of charter schools that serve students with disabilities. Education also is planning to bring charter and students with disabilities stakeholders together in FY15. In FY15, ED reported the following: 1) through the NCSRC contract, the Charter Schools Program (CSP) conducted a webinar, open to grantees and other charter-sector stakeholders, on serving students with disabilities in charter schools in September 2015. The webinar discussed several research-based practices to help charter schools more effectively serve students with disabilities; 2) in March 2015, in conjunction with CSP's annual SEA, CMO, and non-SEA project directors' conference, the CSP held a Students with Disabilities Summit to provide technical assistance to grantees on issues affecting students with disabilities in charter schools. OSEP and OSERS staff members attended, responding to questions from CSP grantees, as well as external stakeholders; 3) in June 2015, through the NCSRC contract, the CSP released a case study to highlight how Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, is meeting the needs of its students with disabilities; 4) in October 2014, through the NCSRC contract, the CSP released a case study highlighting how Brooke Roslindale Charter School in Boston, Massachusetts, is meeting the needs of its students with disabilities.
Recommendation: To help charter schools recognize practices that may affect enrollment of students with disabilities and improve the information available for monitoring and oversight, the Secretary of Education should conduct additional fact finding and research to understand the factors affecting enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools and act upon that information, as appropriate.
Agency Affected: Department of Education