Charter Schools Enroll Fewer Students with Disabilities, Report Finds

Last Updated: June 26, 2012

This article appeared in the June 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report documenting that most charter schools enroll fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools. The report calls for additional research into the reasons behind the disparity.

The report, Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities, was released earlier this month. The study was conducted at the request of George Miller (D-CA) in response to long-standing questions about how well charter schools are serving distinct student groups, including those with disabilities. Miller is the Senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

According to the study, special education enrollment in traditional public schools is 11% compared to 8% in charter schools.

As public schools that are recipients of public funds, charters are prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities, but the report suggests that other practices in charter schools may have a discriminatory effect. The report notes anecdotal evidence that many charters may be requiring entrance exams or, more indirectly, discouraging students with disabilities from applying for enrollment, practices sometimes referred to as ‘skimming.’ 

The report also finds very high rates of special education enrollment in certain charter schools. This is largely a function of specialty charters created to serve a specific segment of the disabled population. For example, a number of charter schools have opened to serve students on the autism spectrum.

Some special education advocates challenge this approach as contributing to segregation of students with disabilities — either into charters or in regular public schools.

The GAO report finds that students with certain disabilities are especially under-represented in charter schools. For example, charters enroll very few students with intellectual disabilities.

Some charter school supporters have characterized the differences in enrollment as small and pointed to reasons other than discrimination that may explain them, reasons such as parental choice and other parental considerations of how well the school could serve children with severe disabilities. 

Other factors noted in the report as possible contributors to low enrollment among students with disabilities include the availability of free or reduced price meals and transportation.

The Office of Civil Rights has several compliance reviews underway regarding charter schools and students with disabilities. The GAO also recommends that the U.S. Department of Education conduct additional research on this topic and update its guidance for charter schools to ensure charters know their responsibilities for serving students with disabilities.

As of the 2009–2010 school year, more than 1.6 million students — close to five percent of all public school students — attended charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Charter schools serve a largely non-rural population overall. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the 785 rural charter schools in operation in 2009–2010 comprised 16% of all charter schools nationwide.

The GAO is also looking into how well English-Language Learners are being served. That report is forthcoming.

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Press release here:

Full report here:

National coverage:


Read more from the June 2012 Rural Policy Matters.