The report finds that the discrepancy between traditional and charter school special education enrollment in California is caused by a host of structural barriers and challenges, the most important of which, is the degree of charter school autonomy in special education. The report highlights current data on the enrollment of students with disabilities in the most autonomous arrangements.
"The vast majority of charter schools want to serve students with disabilities with the same autonomy and flexibility they have for their typically developing students," said CCSA's Special Education Advisor and Chair of the California Advisory Commission on Special Education Gina Plate. "Our study shows that as charter schools are given more programmatic autonomy over special education services and access to state and federal special education funds, the special education student population increases at those schools and we see very innovative and creative delivery models emerge," Plate asserted.
Key Report Findings:
The most significant barrier that prevents charters from serving more students with disabilities is the charter school special education legal identity, or the degree to which a charter school is autonomous from its authorizer for special education services. The legal identity has significant implications for a charter school's access to special education funding, infrastructure, and authority over placement decisions for students with disabilities.
Charter schools that achieve greater autonomy in special education as a Local Education Agency (LEA) for special education purposes, or through LEA-like arrangements, serve higher percentages of students with disabilities, including those with more severe needs.
The gap between traditional K-12 public school special education enrollment and charter special education enrollment in LEA and LEA-like charter schools is only 1.5% (LEA charter schools enroll 8.7% of students with disabilities compared to 10.3% statewide; LEA-like charter schools serve 10.2% compared to 11.7% in Los Angeles Unified School District).
The rate of growth of special education enrollment in these charter schools is outpacing their rate growth of general education enrollment. Furthermore, students with more severe needs comprise a higher percentage of enrollment.
Most charter schools continue to face structural barriers to autonomy in special education, which has a direct impact on their ability to serve larger percentages and ranges of students with disabilities. Removal of these barriers through greater access to LEA and LEA-like arrangements will ensure that more charter schools across the state can build the necessary infrastructure and programs to serve all students.
The report recommends several solutions including that legislators and policymakers address these barriers by providing equitable and adequate special education funding to charter schools and authorizers through a system that prioritizes accountability, local control, and responsiveness to evolving needs of students. This solution closely aligns with the recommendations recently released by the California Statewide Special Education Task Force.
Additionally, the report recommends that (1) the local authorizers and SELPAs seize the tremendous opportunity to empower charters to serve a higher percentage and broader range of students through creating innovative LEA-like arrangements, and (2) charter LEAs seek opportunities to build infrastructure and mitigate risk though establishing charter consortia or cooperatives, risk pools, systems of service sharing, and partnerships with community organizations. Moreover, researchers should continue to study the underlying causes of the special education gap for charter schools and examine the connections between school practices and student outcomes.
The Los Angeles Unified School District and the El Dorado County Charter SELPA (Special Education Local Plan Area) contributed data and expertise to this report.