Charters schools are often criticized for not enrolling enough or not adequately serving special student populations, particularly students with special needs. A new study by Tufts University’s Elizabeth Setren evaluates this claim with a unique dataset in Boston. The report looks at the impact of special education and English language learner classification in charter schools in Beantown. Specifically, the outcome of interest is the impact of charter school attendance on academic outcomes for students relative to their pre-lottery special needs status.
Setren makes use of data from randomly-assigned charter school admissions lotteries from 2003–04 through 2014–15, which includes information on the baseline characteristics of students in the lottery and post-lottery outcomes for lottery winners and losers. (Pre-lottery demographics and test scores are similar for those offered and not offered a slot.) The sample includes admissions lottery data from thirty of Boston’s elementary, middle, and high school charter schools, comprising roughly 90 percent of the sector.
Descriptive data show that, by spring 2014, the prevalence of students with special needs in middle school charter lotteries was similar to Boston Public Schools (BPS)—both were around 22 percent. The same was true for English language learners in both sectors—though at slightly higher percentages. (Notably, legislation was passed in Massachusetts in 2010 that required charter schools to increase their efforts to recruit and retain English language learners and students with special needs.)
The key finding is that charter schools remove special-education classifications and place students with special needs in more inclusive settings at the time of enrollment at much higher rates than do traditional public schools (TPS). Specifically, applicants with special-needs status at the time of the lottery are 11.8 percentage points more likely to have their classification removed in charter schools than in TPS. That pattern is consistent for students with more severe disabilities too: Applicants placed in separate classrooms at pre-lottery time are 17.3 percentage points less likely to keep their special-needs status in a charter school compared to TPS. Related, charters move special-needs applicants to more inclusive classrooms 27.1 percentage points more often than do TPS, meaning they spend more time in a general education setting and less time receiving services outside of the mainstreamed classroom.
A similar pattern played out with English language learners. Charter schools removed the English-language-learner status at the time of enrollment 31.8 percentage points more often than did TPS, although those with intermediate and advanced English proficiency drove the differences—those with beginning English proficiency rarely had their ELL classification removed at the time of enrollment. Since learning gains cannot justify the classification differences—recall that students’ placements are changed at the time they enroll—they attempt to find out what might. They discover one of the main drivers is that parents do not disclose the special-needs classification of their child at enrollment. And because the transfer of records between Boston Public Schools and the charter sector takes much longer than between BPS schools, charters must rely on this voluntary parental reporting.
Now for the test score effects. In a nutshell, charter school attendance has large positive effects on math and English language arts test scores for students with ELL or special-needs status at the time of the lottery. For example, a year of charter attendance increases math test scores by 0.26 standard deviations for special needs applicants and by 0.33 standard deviations for English language learner applicants. (ELA increases are in the same ballpark though slightly lower.) These effects appear to accumulate in the first two years and then level off. Finally, charter school attendance also boosts the chances that both English language learners and students with special needs will reach proficiency on the tenth grade math and ELA exams. And it makes it more likely that ELLs in particular will score above 900 out of 1600 on the SAT and enroll in a four-year college.
In looking at potential mechanisms, Setren concludes that the general charter school environment appears to be driving the academic gains—things like a longer school day, a strict behavior code, and emphasis on high expectations. Her last sentence is direct and on point: “The finding that special education students and English language learners can make large academic gains without specialized services in a high quality general education program calls for greater attention to general practices, in addition to the current focus on specialized supports, to improve special needs students’ outcomes.”
SOURCE: Elizabeth Setren, “The Impact of Targeted vs. General Education Investments: Evidence from Special Education and English Language Learners in Boston Charter Schools,” retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University (June 2019).