Charter Schools Counsel Special Ed Students Out
by Alleen Brown – In Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) combined, 18 percent of students received special education services last fall. In charter schools located in the two cities, only 12 percent of all students were in special education.
Not all special education students or classrooms are alike. Some students need more services. Some need separate classrooms for portions of the day. In the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts combined, 18 percent of special education students fall under setting 3, a category used to describe students whose disabilities require that they work outside the mainstream classroom more than 60 percent of the day. In area charters, only 5 percent are in setting 3.
What accounts for the difference?
At least three factors are important influences on special education enrollment: parent choice, differences in scale and years of experience.
Parent choice inarguably impacts the difference in student enrollment. Some charter leaders say they gently discourage students with particularly challenging needs from attending their schools — that may impact parent choice.
“I know that it probably comes across as charters not wanting the kiddos. That’s not the case at all,” said Karen Kennedy, director of Innovative Special Education Services, an organization that advises charters how to work with special education students “The bigger programs are more cost effective, have more resources.
“The bottom line is, for those of us in this field in Minnesota, what’s best for the students?” said Kennedy.
Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools rely on a network of specialized programs located around the districts to meet the varying needs of students labeled setting 3. These programs have been developed over many years.
Although they have leeway to contract with outside service providers, charters have to be prepared to meet a huge range of needs within a single building. In many cases, schools create setting 3 programs from scratch for a single student.
Differences in students served, school test scores.
Special education leaders on both sides say that comparing disability services in charter versus big district schools is comparing apples to oranges, yet comparisons are made frequently and cause grief on both sides.
Some groups of students who are more likely to have disabilities, including kids in juvenile detention and preschoolers, are served by the big districts almost by default.
Students younger than age six make up 18 percent of the Twin Cities districts’ special education students. Most charters don’t offer preschool.