Parsing Charter School Disability Enrollments in PA and NJ

Here are a few quick figures that parse the disability classifications of children with disabilities served by charter schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Two previous posts set the stage for this comparison. In one, I explained how charter schools in the city of Newark, NJ, by taking on fewer low income students, far fewer LEP/ELL students and very few children with disabilities other than those with the mildest/lowest cost disabilities (specific learning disability and speech/language impairment) are leaving behind a much higher need, higher cost population for the district schools to serve.

Effects of Charter Enrollment on District Enrollment in Newark:

In another post, I walked through the financial implications of Pennsylvania’s special education funding formula and specifically the charter school special education funding formula on districts where large shares of low need disability students are siphoned off by charters and where high need disability students are left behind to be served by districts with depleted resources.

The Commonwealth Triple-screw:

In short, under the Pennsylvania charter school funding formula, for each child classified as having a disability and choosing to attend a charter school, the sending district must pay the “average special education expenditure” of the district – regardless of the actual IEP needs of that student. So, there’s a strong financial incentive to serve large numbers of low need special education students in PA charters. But this, of course, leaves a mess behind for local districts, who then have a far higher need special education population and have lost substantial shares of their available funding (due to a completely arbitrary and wrongheaded calculation of the sending tuition rate).

This post merely provides a few more comprehensive follow up figures on the issue of higher versus lower need disability students and charter school enrollments.

First, in New Jersey, here’s the statewide breakout of charter special education enrollments and market shares based on data from 2010 (same as used in Newark post)

  • In short, charter schools in NJ serve about 1.7% of the population.
  • They serve about 1.05% of the population of children with disabilities.
  • AND… they serve only  about .23% of the population of children with disabilities other than Specific Learning Disability or Speech/Language Impairment!

That’s a big deal! It’s a big deal because this leaves behind significant numbers of high need disability children to be served by districts. And, to the extent that charter expansion follows the same trend, this will lead to even greater concentration of children with disabilities in general in district schools and children with more severe disabilities in particular.

Here’s the average disability classification profile for NJ public districts and for NJ charter schools.

Now, for Pennsylvania, where there exists a significant incentive for charter schools to boost their special education populations but to avoid serving children with more severe disabilities. Here are the counts for counties with at least 500 students in charter schools:

Here are the enrollment shares within counties:

And finally, here are the population shares served:

So, for example, in Philadelphia county, which is the city:

  • Charter schools serve 16.2% of the student population
  • Charter schools serve about 14.6% of the children with disabilities
  • BUT… charter schools serve only about 6.3% of children with disabilities other than SLD or SLI!

Even in those counties where charters serve a larger share of the county-wide total special education population, they only occasionally serve an equitable share of children with more severe disabilities (often in specialized schools).

In Delaware County, charters do serve a higher overall special education population share than districts in the county, but serve a much smaller share of non-SLI/SLD disabilities. And Chester-Upland in particular bears the fiscal brunt of this practice!

That said, clearly, PA charter schools are generally serving more comparable aggregate shares of children with disabilities than NJ charter schools and perhaps the financial incentive plays a role.

Again, a critical issue here is the nature of the population left behind in district schools.

These figures also dispel a common assertion of charter advocates/pundits who, when challenged as to why special education rates tend to be generally low in charters, often argue that it’s because the charters are implementing better early interventions and thus avoiding classifying children in marginal categories like “specific learning disability.” To begin with, there’s absolutely no evidence to support this claim. That aside, these figures show that in fact, many charters do seem to have plenty of students in these marginal categories. What they don’t have is students in the more severe disability categories such as mental retardation and traumatic brain injury and it is certainly unlikely that charter school early interventions are successfully preventing children from being later misclassified into these categories.

Statewide, of 724 children with TBA, only 7 were in charters. Of 21,987 mentally retarded children, only  396 (1.8%) were in charters.  But about 4.1% of all enrollments were in charters.

I’ll admit… I am losing my patience on some of these issues. Excuse me for a moment while I vent. I’m losing my patience in large part because of the ridiculous responses/reactions I get every time I simply post some data either relating to charter school enrollments or finances.  I seem only to get a flood of ridiculous responses when I’m presenting information on Charter schools. Not when I criticize value-added estimates, or point out misuse of SGPs. Pretty much exclusively when I present data on charter schools.

It’s time to cut the crap and start digging into what’s really going on here, and how to move toward a system that best serves all of the children rather than ignoring and brushing aside these issues and pushing forward with what appears to be an emerging parasitic model.

Let’s evaluate the incentives. And instead of protecting perverse, damaging financial incentives like those in PA, simply because they drive more money to charters, let’s do the right thing. Hey, it may be the case that charter allocations are otherwise too low, but raising them for the wrong reasons, with a wrong mechanism  and with bad incentives is still, wrong, wrong and bad.

It may also be the case that the data we are using for making comparisons – using total of free and reduced lunch, rather than parsing income categories, comparing total special education rates instead of by classification, are encouraging charter operators to boost their enrollment subgroups by focusing on the margins. In which case, we need to make it absolutely clear by increasing data reporting precision and availability, that serving kids just under the threshold (or in marginal categories) isn’t enough. More fine grained comparisons are necessary!

I’ve said before that I don’t really believe that every school – every magnet school – every charter school – every traditional public school – can or should try to serve exactly the same population. I do believe there’s room for specialization in the system. I also believe that many charters that “succeed” so-to-speak, do so because they’ve figured out how to serve well their non-representative populations. And many would likely fail miserably at trying to serve children with more severe disabilities (as many district schools have).

BUT… accepting that there’s room for some specialization within the system and some uneven distribution of students is a far cry from what is now emerging, as charter market shares increase significantly in some cities and in some zip codes. And that must stop!

12 thoughts on “Parsing Charter School Disability Enrollments in PA and NJ

  1. Thank you for your continued awaking on the Charter School issue. You do realize you are taking on the “cartel” . There is a lot of money to be made in this market, as Schundler (ex-comm. ED. NJ) knows with the opening of his new Charter!

  2. “What they don’t have is students in the more severe disability categories such as mental retardation and traumatic brain injury ”

    If parents of those children don’t choose charter schools as often, perhaps they’re happier and being better served in their existing public schools (or with private placements under IDEA). So who cares?

    1. The point is that while some segmentation/specialization across the system is reasonable, the system reaches a point where the segmentation is so great that it is truly detrimental to those left behind in the public schools – which indeed may occur as a result of parental complacence or disinterest. It may in fact be more detrimental to non-disabled children left behind as special education cost pressures increase with the shifting characteristics of the special education population.

      Simply because the parents of those children left in the district schools didn’t (or couldn’t) make the extra effort to track down a charter (assuming one even existed) that might actually encourage them to follow through and enter their lottery, doesn’t mean we should be unconcerned with the schooling those children receive (from a policy standpoint). This is particularly problematic when, as this population sorting dynamic occurs, we are not making sufficient corrections in the funding to the schools of those left behind. We are not, in NJ… under the flat, census based finance mechanism for special education, scaling up district funding to account for the overall increase in special ed concentration or the increase in greater needs as charters enroll primarily non-disabled students. In PA we are doing the opposite – actually making things worse.

      My point is that policymakers need to look at the system as a whole (and incentives driving it) and how it fits together to provide the best possible set of educational opportunities. Clearly behaviors of individual schools and choices (or lack thereof) of individual families may undermine that. That’s exactly what we need to explore.

      I think it’s incredibly naive to assert that any parent of a child with a severe disability who chooses to keep their child in the local public school has done so primarily because they are happy with their current services.

    2. Fair point about the financing. All such funding should be weighted appropriately and should be attached to the child, not census based.

      Parents of severely disabled children may not be happy with their current public school; that’s certainly true, and I apologize for implying otherwise. But on the flip side, unless one is assuming that charter schools are automatically a better choice for such children, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to agree that those kids ought to be moved to charter schools so as to bring the statistics up there.

      1. That’s actually not what I’m suggesting as a policy solution. I certainly don’t want to push kids with severe disabilities into charters that are ill-equipped to serve them. However, a reasonable solution may be to limit the number of charters and/or student charter slots that may open in a district if the tendency is that those charters will have this adverse effect on the district (concentrating remaining high need disabilities in the district). That is, if it’s going to be the case that charters only serve a certain slice of the population, we probably need to regulate their market share so as to moderate segmentation/segregation. And, we need to carefully consider incentive structures that might moderate that segmentation w/o having to simply put a cap on it. Again, to me it’s about the system as a whole – which includes district schools, magnet schools, charter schools… possibly includes publicly subsidized private placements, etc. Public policy must manage that mix responsibly (though I’m pessimistic that it can).

      2. How does that “adverse effect” occur? For example: in my kids’ public elementary school last year, there were a few hundred kids, about 3 of whom were extremely disabled.

        So suppose that 1/10 of that school’s population went off to a charter school, and the school had to let one of the regular teachers go. Are the 3 special ed kids now going to be harmed? How exactly? Is the rest of the school going to be harmed because the kids with severe disabilities are now 1.1% of the student body rather than 1%? How exactly?

      3. You’ve provided a really narrow, anecdotal, small marginal shift hypothetical and one that’s largely irrelevant. Certainly there’s no “huge” adverse effect in that hypothetical. What I’m talking about and illustrating are those examples where the shifts are far more dramatic and ultimately have district-wide consequences – Where districts are left with much higher shares of their disability population having more severe disabilities and in many states/contexts (NYC or NJ) having higher special education populations left behind overall.

        As I’ve already explained, this clearly creates strain on available resources, especially without appropriate compensation for that strain… and even worse in cases like PA where districts get hammered financially.

        Beyond the financial resource strain created by escalating high need student concentrations (not one single kid, but large shares over time), there are also issues of the changing nature of the peer group in any inclusive setting. Peer effect is a huge issue here (perhaps more so on the poverty/race/ell comparisons). Arguably, peer effect is largely what the most segregated charters are relying on for their positive effects/outcomes (and difficult to isolate even in lotteried studies where peer groups are non-random). And what one school in a choice system gains through peer effect (concentrating the limited supply of advantaged students) is lost by someone else. Indeed, at very small market share the effect is, well, small. But at larger market share it becomes more problematic. Hence my argument in the previous reply that we need to figure out how to manage that market share, if the tendency is going to be to segregate.

  3. Nice work. I saw similiar data while I was at Louisiana depth of education involving the charters in new Orleans. We had a number of creative ways students with discipline issues, 504, or disabled were strongly discouraged or pointed to other schools. Some just never hired the necessary staff to serve students, until parents took the hint and moved on.

  4. Why don’t we just start funding SPED children more if they have severe disabilities and less if the have lesser ones? The funding formula was only valid if the school district was taking all the kids, it would average out. When you average costs, there will be children below the average and some above (in this case way above) I wonder what would happen to charter enrollements of SPEd children if we could actually scale the funding to more closely cover the costs of the disability?

    1. Certainly a logical policy response and the type of solution to which I’m referring, especially in cases like Pennsylvania, but also NJ. That said, even though that’s the logical response for fixing problems like what’s occurring in PA, you can certainly expect that the charter lobby would fight it to the end simply because the current formula brings them more money for the low need special education students they still serve. Quite honestly, I’d expect the public districts also to fight any provision that brought them more money whether it was for appropriate reasons or not. That’s just the nature of school funding formulas. See my post on Chester Upland (Commonwealth Triple Screw) to see how big a difference it would make for CUSD if their state funding was based on their needs, and if their transfers to charters were based on the kids needs who actually transfer.

  5. I didn’t say it would work. This is about exposing their true motives. The more “logical policy responses” you can toss out there that they refuse, the more people will (hopefully) see what this is all about. Theoretically a revenue neutral readjusting of the formula shouldn’t matter one whit to an all inclusive district assuming normal SPED distribution across districts. What I would worry about more. . . is schools and districts “upcoding” the exceptionalities for an extra revenue boost. . .

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