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Ohio Charter Schools Under Federal Scrutiny for Low Enrollment of Children with Disabilities

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Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 10:45 AM

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether charter schools in Ohio and three other states discriminate against students with disabilities.

Scott / Flickr

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether charter schools in Ohio and three other states discriminate against students with disabilities.

The investigation by the department's Office for Civil Rights is a "proactive compliance" review of charter schools and charter management organizations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin in connection with low enrollment of students with disabilities. according to spokesman Jim Bradshaw. The review is also looking at similar issues for students learning English.

The department has not made any findings in connection with the reviews.

"In general, compliance review sites are selected based on various sources of information, including information provided by parents, education groups, media, community organizations, and the public, and, in certain circumstances, on statistical data, to the extent they are supported by other sources of information," Bradshaw wrote in an email.

Anecdotes and Hard Data

National anecdotal data suggests some charter schools may discriminate against students with disabilities, according to a June Government Accountability Office report.

But there's no hard data that illustrates the extent of any discrimination, according to the GAO.

Charter schools in other states have been accused of discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling.

A 2011 investigation by StateImpact Florida found that Florida charter schools failed to serve students with disabilities, particularly students with the most severe disabilities.

Harvard University researcher Thomas Hehir told StateImpact Florida it comes down to money:

“That is unfortunately what we find in altogether too many places,” Hehir said. “I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they cost more money to educate.”

Fewer Students With Disabilities

Nationally, charter schools enroll a smaller percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, according to the GAO report.

In Ohio, overall charter schools and traditional public schools enroll similar proportions of students with disabilities, about 15 percent.

But Ohio students with disabilities are relatively concentrated in a small number of charter schools:

  • At about one in three Ohio charter schools, students with disabilities make up less than 10 percent of enrollment, compared with about one in 10 traditional public schools.
  • At about one in five Ohio charter schools, at least 20 percent of students enrolled have disabilities. That's compared to about two in 10 traditional public schools.

And, in general, Ohio charter schools tend to enroll students with less severe disabilities such as learning disabilities.

And few Ohio schools besides a group of about 20 charter schools which specifically target students with disabilities enroll any students with multiple disabilities such as being both mentally disabled and blind.

Segregation by Choice

Gary Tonks, executive director of the Arc of Ohio, said the concentration of students with disabilities in some schools is mostly a result of "segregation by choice," of parents selecting schools in which they believe their children will be more comfortable.

Tonks said he doesn't hear from many parents of students with disabilities who were turned away from enrolling in charter schools.

"I get more, 'They accepted my child and they say they can’t deal with them,'" he said. "It’s an after the fact thing."

That's something that charter schools -- like traditional public schools -- are not supposed to do, said Bill Sims, president of the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But charter schools generally receive less public funding than traditional public schools. And the cost of educating a child with special needs can be difficult for some charter schools to bear.

Reasons for Differences

Nationally, here are several reasons why charter schools and traditional public schools' enrollments of students with disabilities differ, the GAO notes:

  • Fewer parents of students with disabilities may choose to enroll their children in charter schools;
  • Some charter schools may discourage students with disabilities from enrolling; and
  • Charter schools receive less state funding than traditional public schools, which may make it difficult to meet the needs of students with more severe disabilities.

But Aimee Gilman, an Ohio lawyer who focuses on special education law, said the growth of private-school vouchers for students with special needs may make the question of whether Ohio charter schools are excluding some students less urgent.

"The bigger issue for parents is not whether or not they’re necessarily excluding the kids but whether they’re providing quality education," she said.

[Do you have experiences with charter schools, private voucher providers or other situations and students with disabilities? Please get in touch with us to help inform our future coverage.]

StateImpact reporter Ida Lieszkovszky contributed to this story.

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