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Report: Special Education Kids Missing from Charter Schools

Why do California charters enroll far fewer students with disabilities than traditional schools?

Bill Raden

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special needs students
Photo: Getty Images

A new special ed study released on Wednesday by United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association confirms what many California parents, school district officials and advocates for disabled kids have long contended: that Golden State charter schools disproportionately enroll far fewer students with disabilities than what privatizers generally acknowledge. (Disclosure: CTA is a financial supporter of this website.) Using 2016-17 data from three California districts (L.A., San Diego and Oakland unifieds), State of Denial: California Charter Schools and Special Education Students found that a statistically benign gap between the overall special ed enrollments of charters and district schools more than doubled when researchers broke out the numbers for students with the most disabling and expensive-to-support conditions (those classified as “moderate/severe”). Instead of the 11 percent charter and 14.27 percent district in overall special ed enrollments, disaggregation revealed that between 23.7 and 28.9 percent of that population at district schools were classified moderate/severe versus between 12.9 and 16.25 percent for charters. The price of those disparities to the three districts? Between $64.52 million and a staggering $97.19 million.


Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to braden@capitalandmain.com, @BillRaden.


Some of the report’s bombshells caught even veteran ed researchers by surprise, co-author Grace Regullano told Learning Curves. “One was just how difficult it was to get the data. These are our most vulnerable students, and you would think that there would be more monitoring of this civil rights issue.” Another was the deep divide uncovered in Oakland, where overall district special ed enrollment was almost twice as much as in Oakland’s charters — 13.5 percent versus 7.6 percent. Which is why, of the seven recommendations offered in an accompanying policy brief, three are devoted to the proactive monitoring of access, accountability and transparency practices at the school-site, state and federal civil rights levels. “[The] 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,” observed Daniel J. Losen, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies director at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

Authors of what was on track to be California’s first-in-the-nation, statewide ethnic studies curriculum framework say they now fear for the integrity of model in the wake of a right-leaning political backlash. Headlines last week blasted the 2020 Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) draft that had been posted to the California Department of Education’s website for public comment as “far-left, anti-Jewish propaganda.” Detractors included the American Jewish Council, which fumed at lesson plans that countenanced the pro-Palestinian sanctions movement against Israel while giving short shrift to anti-Semitism. Key Sacramento lawmakers agreed and criticized the model for ignoring other ethnic experiences in favor of the curriculum’s core focus on historically discriminated-against communities of color (Latina/os, Arab- and African Americans, Asian Americans and Native/Indigenous Americans). A radical libertarian Hoover Institute fellow even jumped into the fray, deriding ESMC as a “road map to create ideological activists based on racial identity.”

Well, yeah, replied bewildered ES teachers. By arming disadvantaged black and brown students with the critical tools to unpack the racial and gender biases in the wider culture and counter them with the power of the students’ own stories, ethnic studies has proved an all-too rare game-changer at engaging difficult to reach kids in the state’s poorest communities. “It has demonstrated it can produce transformative results with students at eradicating the achievement/opportunity gap,” offered veteran L.A. Unified teacher R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, who co-chaired the 18-member ESMC Advisory Committee that drafted the framework.

That efficacy is why what most worries California’s ethnic studies professionals is last week’s call by state Board of Ed president Linda Darling-Hammond and state schools chief Tony Thurmond for the model to be “substantially redesigned” — something advocates fear could ultimately hurt the kids should a politically motivated rewrite throw out the curriculum’s rigor with the bathwater. Cal State Northridge Chicana/o studies professor Theresa Montano, who also sat on the advisory committee, explained that critics are confusing ethnic studies with a multicultural American history course. Rather than being a substantial flaw with the framework, which gives teachers wide latitude to tailor lessons to the lives of students, the controversy reflects a flawed political process that rushed the committee’s unfinished work in front of the public.

“At each of the meetings,” Montano told Learning Curves of the oversights, “we never heard a peep from those who are now criticizing the model curriculum framework. … And while it’s true that California has an overwhelming [number] of students of color, the curriculum was developed for all of California students, and the folks who were in the room were the practitioners who … have proven that ethnic studies works.”


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