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Mainstream Appeal

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Michael Regnier

A rigorous new study of charter elementary schools has a startling implication: mainstream general education classrooms at NYC charter schools contain many students who, statistically, would have been assigned to special education had they attended district schools.

Charter school educators have been saying this for years, and the data consistently shows that NYC charter students who are classified as needing special education are more likely to have the designation removed over time. For the first time ever, a researcher has been able to verify that students classified as non-special education would not have remained so had they been placed in a district school.

In Why the Gap? Special Education and New York City Charter Schools, a new paper published by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and the Manhattan Institute, Dr. Marcus Winters uses data from NYC DOE and charter schools’ random admission lotteries to follow charter school applicants over time.*

Among many other notable findings, Winters finds that the special education enrollment gap between district and charter schools grows wider over time – but this growth comes primarily because district schools are more likely to identify students as having a disability, particularly a Specific Learning Disability (SLD).

As Winters explained at a panel discussion hosted at the Charter Center yesterday, SLD is one of the most subjectively-diagnosed types of disability, and researchers have long known that it tends to be identified in students who may be simply struggling in school, particularly male students of color. Charter school experts in the room weighed in on what this could mean for practice and policy.

  • Charter Center CEO James Merriman heralded the study as an opportunity to investigate which practices are working in charter schools, and could be shared with other public schools to help more students across the city.
  • Merriman and Winters also noted that, regardless of what causes the growth in the special education gap over time, the gap itself is relatively wide even in Kindergarten, and is widest in the disability types that are most challenging to serve (and can be diagnosed most objectively). Merriman called for charter schools to focus on recruiting students with disabilities, and heralded DREAM Charter School for its expansive special education program.
  • CRPE Director Robin Lake reviewed CRPE’s past research on the shape of special education in New York, which suggested that blunt enrollment quotas are a poor policy instrument that may create perverse incentives for educators.
  • Meghan Fitzgerald, Director of Special Education at the Uncommon Schools charter network, described how Response to Intervention programs have allowed students to move from restrictive settings into mainstream classrooms and academic success.

Read the Study




*The Charter Center assisted in the collection of lottery records, but was not a sponsor of the research. Lottery records were submitted directly to the NYC Department of Education, which matched them to student records, removed identifying information, and provided the resulting data set to Dr. Winters for analysis. For research sample and methods, read the full report.