Last week, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would increase the number of charter schools in New York from 200 to 460. Included in the bill was a provision that charter schools increase efforts to enroll students with learning disabilities — an attempt to appease critics who claim that charters significantly under-enroll students with disabilities.

Yet an examination of data provided to me by the city shows that while charters enroll fewer students with disabilities, the gap is not as large as initially reported by the state teachers union, known as NYSUT. According to Department of Education data, 13 percent of charter school students have an Individualized Education Plan, indicating that they have special needs, compared to 15 percent at traditional public schools. NYSUT reported the numbers as being 9.4 percent at charter schools and 16.4 percent at district schools.

The discrepancy stems from problematic data NYSUT received from the state education department. According to the state, the number of students with disabilities that a charter school reports enrolling often does not match up with numbers reported by school districts. As a result, the state does not consider its own data to be reliable.

As an alternative, I used a database known as CAPS, which is compiled by the city’s Committee on Special Education. CAPS includes information about every student in the city who has an IEP, so it provides a more accurate breakdown of the number of special education students at each school.

I found that the percentage of charter schools enrolling as many or more students with disabilities than their traditional public school counterparts increased from a quarter of schools last year to almost a third of schools this year. Meanwhile, charter high schools actually enroll a larger percentage of students with IEPs than traditional public high schools both within their geographical districts and citywide. Of course, there are only a small number of charter high schools.

I also noticed that the 54 charter schools that are authorized by the DOE enroll, on average, 4 percent more students with IEPs than the 37 charters that are authorized by SUNY’s Charter Schools Institute. (City-authorized charters have special education populations of around 14 percent, versus 10 percent for the SUNY schools.) The New York State Education Department authorized just seven charter schools in 2009, which enrolled special education students at about the same level as the city-authorized schools.

A full breakdown of the data is below, followed by some notes on my methodology. To see my calculations as well as special education enrollment by school, you can check out this spreadsheet.

Notes on Methodology:
1. The number of students in need of IEPs can fluctuate as the year progresses. I used numbers from the end of the school year, because the DOE classifies this as the “high-water mark” for special education numbers.

2. To compare charter schools to traditional public schools, I looked at the average IEP rates of traditional public schools in the same district as the charter school, divided by year. So, for example, if a charter school in District 5 enrolled students in kindergarten through fifth grade, I looked at the average IEP rate of kindergartners through fifth-graders in District 5’s traditional public schools. I took an average because IEP rates vary significantly with grade year, with lower rates in the early years (K-2), the highest rates in middle school, and average rates in high school.

3. Since the number of students requiring special education services has increased dramatically over the past five years (see chart below), there has been a significant increase in the percentages of students who need services at both the charter and district schools. Thus, if you look at the data for two consecutive years, you will notice significant increase at both the charter and district level — this is not a data error.

Special Education Students, 2003-2009

4. Unfortunately, my data did not differentiate among the kinds of services required by students with IEPs, so I cannot make any inferences about the level of need among special education students at the two kinds of schools. Because of this, I did not include data from District 75 schools, which enroll only students with special needs and tend to serve the most severely disabled students.

As always, I welcome your feedback and suggestions in the comments section.