Few observers doubt that special education in Detroit’s main district needs a major overhaul. But an audit that found gaping holes in the district’s services for children with special needs also offered a reminder to critics: The district is doing far more than its share.
Children in Detroit who’ve been diagnosed with autism are 22 times more likely to be enrolled in the district than in a charter school, auditors found. Students with intellectual disabilities — perhaps second after autism on the list of disabilities that demand the most school resources — are 11 times more likely to be enrolled in the traditional district.
Overall, Detroit children with special needs are twice as likely to enroll in the district than a charter school, according to data provided to auditors by the district. So it’s hardly surprising, auditors concluded, that 16 percent of students in the district have special needs while the disability rate among urban districts nationwide is 13 percent. The rate in Detroit charters is roughly 9 percent.
These findings land amid a debate about cooperation and competition between charter schools and the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti hasn’t shied away from competing against charter schools, which enroll roughly one-third of the city’s children. At the same time, he joined a group of charter schools, city leaders and nonprofits in supporting a joint bus line in Northwest Detroit.
“We serve all students,” Vitti said in a written statement to Chalkbeat. “The expectation should be the same for all schools that receive federal and state funding.”
These numbers were no surprise to Rob Kimball, who leads the charter school office at Grand Valley State University, the largest charter school authorizer in Detroit. He pointed out that while charter schools are legally required to take all comers, their students with severe disabilities often attend separate schools run by the district through a special education agreement between schools in Wayne County, which contains Detroit. Parents can enroll a student with a disability in a charter school even if the child spends every day at a district facility. But the process is muddied, Kimball says, because of “enrollment barriers, access issues, and confusion for families.”
Few dispute that the district’s special education program needs work, and the audit obtained this week by Chalkbeat provides more concrete evidence. In addition to disproportionate enrollment, the audit argues that educational programming for all students fell by the wayside over decades of financial crises and declining enrollment.
See below for the section of the audit that compares special education rates in Detroit charter schools and the Detroit Public Schools Community District.