Special Education Enrollment: Traditional Public Schools vs. Charter Schools

Some people believe, mistakenly, that charter schools can be selective with regards to the students they enroll and that this selectivity accounts for the difference in student composition when compared to traditional public schools in Michigan.  One example people point to is the concentration of special education students in charters vis-à-vis traditional public schools.  CRC’s recent report on special education finances sheds light on the common misperception surrounding special education enrollment in charter schools.

Under federal law, public schools throughout the United States have a responsibility to provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment.  Charter schools in Michigan (known as public school academies or PSAs) are considered public schools under provisions of the 1963 Michigan Constitution and state law and must adhere to federal and state special education laws, including the FAPE mandate.  Therefore, the same special education laws, rules, and regulations that apply to traditional public schools also apply to charter schools.  Although many charter schools require students to apply for admission, schools may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.  Furthermore, once enrolled, a special education student is entitled to all the services required by his/her Individualized Education Plan (IEP). 

Just as general education students are enrolled in both traditional public and charter schools, students with IEPs also attend both types of public schools. However, proportionately more students with disabilities are found in traditional public schools compared to charter schools.  In 2010, 12.8 percent of the total K- 12 students in traditional public schools had IEPs (see table below).  This compares to 9.7 percent of the total K-12 students in the charter school setting.

 

Student Head Count by Type of Public School:  2000 and 2010

 

2000

2010

School Type

Special Education Students

As % of Total K-12 Enrollment

Special Education Students

As % of Total K-12 Enrollment

Traditional Public Schools

209,581

13.0%

184,869

12.8%

Charter Schools

2,961

5.4%

10,297

9.7%

Source:  Center for Educational Performance and Information

Compared to 2000, the statewide concentration of disabled students in the traditional public school environment in 2010 was relatively unchanged at 13 percent.  (Between 2000 and 2010 the concentration peaked at 14.2 percent in 2006).  Compared to 2000, the number of students with IEPs in traditional schools in 2010 was down nearly 25,000; however, the total K-12 enrollment in traditional districts also was down proportionately. Therefore, as a percentage of the total, the number of students with IEPs in traditional schools in 2010 was the same as it was in 2000.

In contrast to the decline in the traditional public school setting, the number of students with IEPs in charter schools more than tripled between 2000 and 2010.  Much of this change was attributable to the growth in the number of charter schools and charter enrollment.  Although charter schools were authorized in the mid-1990s, growth in the number of charters and student enrollments did not occur until the early 2000s. Steady growth continued throughout the 2000s until today.

Recent state law changes allowing for a greater number of charter schools will likely accelerate charter enrollment growth in the coming years.  Between 2000 and 2010, the number of charter schools increased substantially, as did the total enrollment in these schools (slightly more than double).  Over the same period, the percentage of students with IEPs enrolled in charters increased from 5.4 percent to 9.7 percent – a greater proportion of students with IEPs chose this educational alternative.  Changing demographics, along with greater school choice options, are likely to further change the composition of student enrollment in both traditional public and charter schools going forward.

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