New Study Reveals Privately-Run Charter Schools Under-Enroll Students with Disabilities

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When charters choose, students with disabilities lose


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A new first-of-its-kind report released today proves the theory advocates for students with disabilities and public schools have been saying for years:  charter schools are enrolling fewer students with disabilities. Those they do enroll generally have less severe – and therefore less costly – disabilities, and that this is having a disparate fiscal impact on public school districts. The report and brief, LINK à State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students, conducted by United Teachers Los Angeles and California Teachers Association researchers, calculated the cost disparity on San Diego Unified School District, Los Angeles Unified School District, and Oakland Unified School District, and found the gross fiscal impact for these three districts to be between $64.52 million and $97.19 million annually.



“For years, we have heard anecdotally from parents, public and charter educators that the charter industry under-enrolls students with disabilities. For the first time, we can now quantify those stories using data from three of the three largest charter authorizers in the state. Beyond the civil rights concerns, there are also stark fiscal impacts on our public schools. This report shows a disturbing a pattern that, if left unchecked, means we are looking down the barrel of a public education system that will become increasingly segregated and destabilized,” said Elaine Grace Regullano, UTLA’s Strategic Research and Analytics Director and co-author of the report.


In the 2016 – 2017 academic year, SDUSD, LAUSD, and OUSD charter schools were serving significantly fewer students with disabilities than district schools – 11.01% vs. 14.27%. In Oakland, charter schools enrolled students at roughly half the rate of district-run schools (7.67% vs. 13.58%). Charter schools in SDUSD, LAUSD, and OUSD were serving a statistically smaller share of students with the most severe disabilities, who are also generally the most expensive to serve, including a persistent under-enrollment of students with autism, intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, and orthopedic impairment. In fact, many of California’s largest charter school chains are significantly under-enrolling students with disabilities less than 10% enrollment, including: ASPIRE (8.61%), Celerity (9.42%), KIPP (9.98%), Inspire Public Schools (7.05%), and Rocketship (7.34%).



“This report appears to have carefully analyzed the available data and suggests that in too many districts, charter schools enroll a much lower percentage of students with disabilities than the district's demographics suggest they should,” said Daniel J. Losen, Director, Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights. “Especially striking were the reportedly larger differences for those students with moderate to severe disabilities. These large special education enrollment differences raise serious questions about whether some charters are unlawfully either steering such children away, failing to identify students in need of special education, or pushing enrolled students with disabilities out, perhaps through harsh discipline or other means. While there is not necessarily a problem behind every discrepancy, the deep divide between charters and public schools in districts such as Oakland was particularly alarming.”



“What made me realize that Learning Choice Academy wasn’t the right place for my daughter was when the special education staff told me, in contradiction of their initial promise, that her needs were greater than they could accommodate. I could tell they were trying to squeeze us out from the beginning, but that really clinched it,” said Vanessa Aguirre, mother whose daughter attended a San Diego charter school.


However, equity can be acquired if we go back to the original intent of charter schools in California, which was to improve student learning while encouraging the use of different and innovative teaching methods and creating new professional opportunities for educators.  Unfortunately, as charter schools have expanded in California, many departed from this vision and are operated by large charter management organizations (CMOs). This means important decisions are frequently made without enough oversight and far from the school communities they are meant to serve.


“My son and I came as the perfect student-parent contribution to his education,” said Tracy Camp, mother whose son attended an Oakland charter school. “He wanted to succeed. As an 11-year-old, he had put in two to five hours a day studying. I sat and helped him. I wasn’t not participating…if the school is also putting in their part, it seems like he should be able to succeed.”


Parents have been made promises that have led only to disappointments oftentimes forcing students to take two steps back.


“A representative from the charter school told me, ‘You won’t need to worry about anything,’ and I believed them. In retrospect, I’m reminded of the old saying that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is,” said Nereyda Bautista, mother whose daughter attended a Los Angeles charter school.


The report offers various considerations for policymakers that would begin to address the inequities detailed in the report. Two measures currently being considered by California lawmakers that would fix flawed charter laws are AB 1505 and AB 1507. AB 1505 would allow school districts to consider fiscal impact of a new charter school on local students, would ensure local communities control the authorization and renewal of charter schools and would repeal provisions allowing the State Board of Education to approve, renew, or hear appeals of charter school petitions.


“With this groundbreaking report, we call on state officials to read the findings in this report, which proves the lack of oversight and accountability of the charter industry has caused a seismic wave that is negatively impacting students across the state, but especially students who need the most services and are deserving of as much,” said Gloria Martinez, Special Education Teacher and UTLA’s Elementary Vice President.


AB 1507 would close a loophole in current law, which allows a charter school to operate outside of its authorizing district. Both bills are currently in the Senate. Earlier this year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 126 into law which ensures that all charter schools follow state open meetings, open records and conflict of interest laws. 



Policy and Civil Rights Experts Weigh In

Center for Civil Rights Remedies (CCRR)

“This report appears to have carefully analyzed the available data and suggests that in too many districts, charter schools enroll a much lower percentage of students with disabilities than the district's demographics suggest they should. Especially striking were the reportedly larger differences for those students with moderate to severe disabilities. These large special education enrollment differences raise serious questions about whether some charters are unlawfully either steering such children away, failing to identify students in need of special education, or pushing enrolled students with disabilities out, perhaps through harsh discipline or other means. While there is not necessarily a problem behind every discrepancy, the deep divide between charters and public schools in districts such as Oakland was particularly alarming.”

- Daniel J. Losen, Director, Center for Civil Rights Remedies, UCLA Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles

Dr. Roxana Marachi

"The State of Denial report is timely and important in revealing discriminatory practices in the enrollment of students with special needs within the charter sector. Policymakers should take action to support accountability legislation designed to address these inequitable practices that take resources away from students with the greatest needs."

- Dr. Roxana Marachi, Education Chair, San José / Silicon Valley NAACP

Kristen Zimmerman

“Through State of Denial, the California Teachers Association and United Teachers Los Angeles have done excellent investigative work to show the cost of charter schools on school districts and students with disabilities. This report is a starting point for critical conversations on how we re-commit to the next generation and the promise to help EVERY student thrive and reach their full potential.

- Kristen Zimmerman, mother of a son with Down's syndrome, Co-Chair of the Oakland Community Advisory Committee for Special Education (speaking as an individual)

-Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig

“Courts have long required that students with disabilities are afforded the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. However, the predominance of the peer reviewed research shows that charter schools are much less likely to enroll students with disabilities— our nation’s most vulnerable students. California policymakers have afforded charters greater autonomy and a purposeful lack of oversight. This freedom has turned out to be problematic for California’s students with disabilities. By examining California's three largest charter authorizers, this report makes the case to the public that a market driven approach to education focused on dollars and cents has apparently incentivized charters in California to choose and enroll only the students that will require the least amount of effort and cost— leading to the exclusion of students with the most severe disabilities. The policy ramifications of these findings are that the federal government, the state of California, and all local charter authorizers must immediately prioritize removing the incentives that encourage this behavior and hold ALL schools receiving public tax dollars accountable for serving ALL students in California.”

-Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean and Professor of Educational Policy Analysis and Evaluation, University of Kentucky, College of Education


Statements by UTLA Officers

ACP Officer

“It is undeniable that a system has been created that rewards schools that are choosing to under-enroll students with disabilities,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said. “Coupled with the fact that there is little that can be done to hold the charter industry accountable, we have an unbalanced system in which our most vulnerable students are at risk. We call on elected officials to read this ground-breaking report and take action.” 

Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA President

Gloria Officer

“This report is a wakeup call in how we serve our students with special needs,” said UTLA Elementary Vice President Gloria Martinez, a special education teacher.  “Until 'all students' means ALL students, we must demand more oversight of charter applicants and the charter industry. We will continue to advocate for our most vulnerable students, especially in a system that is set up to push them out.” 

Gloria Martinez, UTLA Elementary Vice President


UTLA Charter Educators

 Letter from UTLA Charter Schools Standing Committee


We, the UTLA Charter Schools Standing Committee, support the findings in the research report titled, “State of Denial” that was recently released by our union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).  The report  provides much needed data about how our public education system, including charter schools, serves special education students.  This research includes crucial information that will benefit students, parents, educators, and all other stakeholders that share the goal of providing the best possible education for our special education student population as well as the broader goal of improving the education system for all students.
The report offers two fundamental conclusions: 1) compared to traditional public schools, the charter schools industry serves a lower percentage of special education students in general and an even lower percentage of special education students in the “moderate to severe” category, and 2) the current system of funding, regulations, and accountability related to special education incentivizes unequal service. 
As educators who are dedicated to serving our students and our communities, we acknowledge that if the charter industry as a whole serves a lower percentage of special education students than traditional public schools, including those that require more resources to educate, then it is a problem that needs to be addressed.  We also recognize that students, parents, and educators at charter schools, like our counterparts in traditional public schools, do our best to serve special education students in an underfunded and imperfect public education system. Assigning specific blame to an individual charter school or single entity within the industry misses the point of the report and will not help us reach any solutions. Instead, all stakeholders should advocate for full funding of unfunded mandates by the State and Federal governments and pursue common-sense regulations and policies that would ensure equitable service for each and every student in traditional and charter schools. We acknowledge the data, underscore the importance of focusing on the problems that have been identified, and commit to collaborate across public schools in order to find solutions to the inequities in service to special needs students that the data exemplifies. 
As unionized charter educators, we are uniquely positioned to play a crucial role in addressing this disparity.  We call on all of our community, including fellow educators, parents, charter industry leaders, elected officials, and the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) to engage with the findings of this report, acknowledge the problems that exist, and work together to find solutions in order to create a better, more equal public education system that serves all students. 
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Charlene Guss, Science – Ivy Academia Entrepreneurial Charter School
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Zasha Endres, World Languages, El Camino Real Charter High School
Heather Knight, Social Studies - El Camino Real Charter High School
Matt Defronzo, Social Studies - Birmingham Community Charter High School
Erica Urbina, World Languages - Birmingham Community Charter High School
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