Home » Press Releases » CER Rebuts GAO Charter Report

CER Rebuts GAO Charter Report

CER Press Release
Washington, D.C.
June 21, 2012

“A Fool’s Errand”

The Center for Education Reform Statement and Analysis on GAO’s Report on Special Education Students in Charter Schools

Jeanne Allen, founder and president of The Center for Education Reform, issued the following statement regarding the General Accounting Office (GAO)’s report on special education students in charter schools. CER’s analysis is below.

“GAO’s attempt to draw conclusions about enrollment of students with special needs in charter schools was a waste of resources. The GAO report, by the agency’s own admission, fails to meet fundamental and rudimentary research standards. It is based wholly on anecdotal snapshots of a limited number of schools and states.

“The GAO conclusion that suggests children with special needs are served at a rate of only 8.2% in charter schools versus 11.2% in conventional public schools is not borne out by experience or data. In fact, GAO admits its government funded report has no comprehensive data to support it. This is an issue that deserves in-depth analysis of real data on real students and there are many valid ways GAO could have studied and learned from public school models. That’s not what GAO did. We urge Congress to investigate the activities surrounding this report, and issue a reprimand for misusing government resources on a fool’s errand.”

CER Analysis:

GAO admits data is anecdotal and incomplete: The GAO concedes there is no comprehensive data on enrolling students with special needs in charter schools, and that its “evidence” is anecdotal. The GAO reports that its personnel only visited thirteen charter schools out of a possible 5,700 across the US. The GAO also only visited three state departments of education. This sample is not large enough to accurately measure the services charter schools provide to students with special needs, or to take into account the vast differences of charter schools and charter laws. Such variations have a profound effect on how schools classify students.

Students with special needs in charters are underrepresented by GAO: Charters serve many more kids with special needs, ranging from those with learning difficulties to higher order challenges, than the GAO report indicates. According to the 2011 Annual Charter School Survey conducted by The Center for Education Reform and relied upon by federal agencies and research organizations, 15% of all charter school students have special needs.

Charters often neither categorize these students as special needs nor fund them through specific special education funding pools. The necessary paperwork is onerous, and the needs of these students are often addressed by comprehensive teaching and support models that are employed in highly successful charter schools. As Success Networks Chair Eva Moskowitz attests in a Wall Street Journal article on this report, many charters try to move students out of special education through intensive instruction, allowing them to leave special needs labels behind.

GAO Study uses an unreliable enrollment definition: As the GAO study uses the term “enrolled,” students with special needs are those “with disabilities who received special education and related services under IDEA in a regular classroom as well as students in other educational environments whose services were provided through a traditional public school district or charter school LEA.” This method of classifying enrolled students is problematic. It is similar to the challenge of measuring “poor” students in charters by counting those receiving free-and-reduced lunch. At least 31% of charter schools report they do not participate in the program because of excessive red tape or lack of staff or facilities to manage it. However, 57% of charter students would qualify for free-and-reduced lunch if they were to apply.

This same problem exists when trying to classify students with special needs. Many charters do not collect funds for or categorize their students as special needs because of the daunting paperwork. In addition, in districts or states where law mandates that charter schools are part of the local education agency (e.g., a school district) and not their own independent agency, it is the district that is legally responsible for providing federally required services to the student, and not the charter school. In these cases, the LEA may decide that based on the student needs, staying in a conventional school is the best option.

Report does not recognize charters focusing on special needs: The GAO report fails to recognize the charter schools that focus on providing a high-quality education to students with special needs. For example, there are charter schools in Ohio and Florida focusing on providing services to students with autism. In Washington, D.C., St. Coletta School serves nearly 250 students with a variety of intellectual and physical disabilities. At the Opportunity Charter School in New York, the inclusion model is used to educate the 50% special needs classified student body and at-risk students. These students who struggled in other schools are getting a second chance in a safe environment.

In summary, the GAO report used inadequate and unreliable data, resulting in fundamentally flawed conclusions about the number of students with special needs in charter schools.