oversight

Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-06-07.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

             United States Government Accountability Office

GAO          Report to Congressional Requesters




June 2012
             CHARTER SCHOOLS

             Additional Federal
             Attention Needed to
             Help Protect Access
             for Students with
             Disabilities




GAO-12-543
                                            June 2012

                                            CHARTER SCHOOLS
                                            Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help
                                            Protect Access for Students with Disabilities

Highlights of GAO-12-543, a report to
congressional requesters




Why GAO Did This Study                      What GAO Found
While the number of charter schools is      Charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than
growing rapidly, questions have been        traditional public schools, but little is known about the factors contributing to
raised about whether charter schools        these differences. In school year 2009-2010, which was the most recent data
are appropriately serving students with     available at the time of our review, approximately 11 percent of students enrolled
disabilities. GAO was asked: (1) How        in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8
do enrollment levels of students with       percent of students enrolled in charter schools.
disabilities in charter schools and
traditional public schools compare, and     GAO also found that, relative to traditional public schools, the proportion of
what is known about the factors that        charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was
may contribute to any differences? (2)      lower overall. Specifically, students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent
How do charter schools reach out to         of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of
students with disabilities and what         traditional public schools. However, when compared to traditional public schools,
special education services do charter       a higher percentage of charter schools enrolled more than 20 percent of students
schools provide? (3) What role do           with disabilities. Several factors may help explain why enrollment levels of
Education, state educational agencies,      students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools differ,
and other entities that oversee charter     but the information is anecdotal. For example, charter schools are schools of
schools play in ensuring students with      choice, so enrollment levels may differ because fewer parents of students with
disabilities have access to charter         disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools. In addition, some
schools? GAO analyzed federal data
                                            charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling.
on the number and characteristics of
                                            Further, in certain instances, traditional public school districts play a role in the
students with disabilities; visited
charter schools and school districts in     placement of students with disabilities in charter schools. In these instances,
three states selected on the basis of       while charter schools participate in the placement process, they do not always
the number of charter schools in the        make the final placement decisions for students with disabilities. Finally, charter
state, among other things; and              schools’ resources may be constrained, making it difficult to meet the needs of
interviewed representatives of federal,     students with more severe disabilities.
state, and other agencies that oversee      Most of the 13 charter schools GAO visited publicized and offered special
charter schools.
                                            education services, but faced challenges serving students with severe
What GAO Recommends                         disabilities. Most charter school officials said they publicized the availability of
                                            special education services in several ways, including fliers and placing ads in the
GAO recommends that the Secretary           local newspaper. Many charter schools GAO visited also reported tailoring
of Education take measures to help          special education services to individuals’ needs, but faced challenges serving
charter schools recognize practices         students with severe disabilities due to insufficient resources. About half of the
that may affect enrollment of students      charter school officials GAO interviewed cited insufficient resources, including
with disabilities by updating existing
                                            limited space, as a challenge.
guidance and conducting additional
fact finding and research to identify       The U.S. Department of Education’s (Education) Office for Civil Rights has
factors affecting enrollment levels of      undertaken two compliance reviews related to charter schools’ recruitment and
these students in charter schools.          admission of students with disabilities in three states, but has not issued recent
Education agreed with our                   guidance covering admission practices in detail, nor has Education conducted
recommendations.                            recent research about factors affecting lower enrollment in charter schools. The
                                            three states GAO visited already have taken steps to monitor charter schools’
                                            admission practices. In addition, officials in these three states reported
                                            prohibiting disability-related questions on charter school admission forms, in part
                                            to protect students with disabilities’ access.
View GAO-12-543. For more information,
contact George Scott at (202) 512-7215 or
scottg@gao.gov.

                                                                                     United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                      1
               Background                                                                   3
               Enrollment Levels of Students with Disabilities in Traditional
                 Public Schools and Charter Schools Differed, but Little Is Known
                 about Factors Contributing to Differences                                  6
               Charter Schools We Visited Offer Special Education Services, but
                 Faced Challenges with Severe Disabilities                                14
               Education Is Reviewing Admission Practices, and Some States
                 Have Implemented Preventive Measures                                     17
               Conclusions                                                                21
               Recommendations for Executive Action                                       22
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                         22

Appendix I     Scope and Methodology                                                      24



Appendix II    Additional Analysis                                                        32



Appendix III   Additional Data                                                            35



Appendix IV    Comments from the U.S. Department of Education                             37



Appendix V     GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments                                      40



Tables
               Table 1: Percent of Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools
                        Serving Students with Disabilities in School Year 2009-
                        2010                                                               9
               Table 2: Site Visit Characteristics                                        30




               Page i                                   GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Figures
          Figure1: Differences in Charter Schools’ LEA Status for Purposes
                   of Special Education                                                 4
          Figure 2: Percent of Students in Charter Schools and Traditional
                   Public Schools Who Had Disabilities Compared to
                   Students with Disabilities’ Overall Representation in
                   Public Schools                                                       7
          Figure 3: Differences in the Percentage of Students with
                   Disabilities Enrolled in Traditional Public Schools and
                   Charter Schools for States with Operating Charter
                   Schools in School Year 2009-2010                                     8
          Figure 4: Percent of Students with Disabilities Enrolled in
                   Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools by
                   Disability Type for School Year 2009-2010                          10
          Figure 5: Amount of Time Spent inside Regular Class by Students
                   with Disabilities, School Year 2009-2010                           11
          Figure 6: Selected Factors That May Contribute to Differences in
                   Enrollment Levels of Students with Disabilities in
                   Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools                     12
          Figure 7: Distributions of Students’ Disability Types for Students
                   with Disabilities Enrolled in Traditional Public Schools
                   and Charter Schools for School Year 2009-2010                      36




          Page ii                                   GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Abbreviations

CCD               Common Core of Data
CSP               Charter Schools Program, U.S. Department of
                  Education
Education         U.S. Department of Education
ESEA              Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965
FAPE              free appropriate public education
IDEA              Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
IEP               Individualized Education Program
Justice           U.S. Department of Justice
LEA               local educational agency
OCR               Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education
OESE              Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S.
                  Department of Education
OII               Office of Innovation and Improvement, U.S. Department of
                  Education
OSEP              Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of
                  Education
OSERS             Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services,
                  U.S. Department of Education
Section 504       Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
SEA               state education agency




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Page iii                                           GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
United States Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   June 7, 2012

                                   The Honorable George Miller
                                   Ranking Member
                                   Committee on Education and the Workforce
                                   House of Representatives

                                   The Honorable Raúl Grijalva
                                   House of Representatives

                                   As the number of charter schools in the United States continues to grow,
                                   questions have been raised about whether charter schools, a relatively
                                   new phenomenon in public education that began in the early 1990s, are
                                   appropriately serving students with disabilities and providing access to
                                   students with more severe disabilities. Actions at both the state and local
                                   levels have shed light on this issue and brought it to the attention of the
                                   public. For example, a class-action lawsuit filed against the Louisiana
                                   Department of Education in October 2010 alleges that students with
                                   disabilities were denied access to New Orleans public schools, most of
                                   which are charter schools, and cites lower percentages of students with
                                   disabilities in charter schools compared to traditional public schools. 1

                                   Charter schools provide students and parents with increased educational
                                   options, and all students, including students with disabilities, generally
                                   enroll in charter schools on the basis of their parents’ choice. States grant
                                   charter schools increased autonomy in school management in exchange
                                   for agreeing to improve student achievement, but charter schools do not
                                   have the authority to waive federal statutory requirements related to
                                   education.

                                   In response to questions about enrollment levels of students with
                                   disabilities in charter schools, we addressed the following questions: (1)
                                   how do enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools
                                   and traditional public schools compare, and what is known about the
                                   factors that may contribute to any differences; (2) how do charter schools
                                   reach out to students with disabilities and what special education services


                                   1
                                    This lawsuit is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
                                   Louisiana and was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. P.B. v. Pastorek, No. 2:10-
                                   cv-04049.




                                   Page 1                                            GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
do charter schools provide; and (3) what roles do the Department of
Education (Education), state educational agencies (SEA), and other
entities that oversee charter schools play in ensuring students with
disabilities’ access to charter schools?

To compare enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter
schools and traditional public schools, 2 we analyzed school-level data for
school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the most recent data available at
the time, from a custom data file provided by Education. The data include
counts of students with disabilities in traditional public schools and charter
schools, students’ age and disability type, the educational environment,
and whether each school is its own local educational agency (LEA) or
part of a larger LEA. To examine how charter schools reach out to
students with disabilities and the types of services charter schools
provide, we visited a major metropolitan area in three states and
interviewed officials in 13 charter schools as well as several school
districts, selected to include states with a large number of charter schools,
a mix in LEA status, and geographic diversity. To determine the role
Education and other organizations play in ensuring students with
disabilities’ access to charter schools, we reviewed relevant federal laws
and regulations and interviewed representatives of Education, the
Department of Justice, selected SEAs, and other entities, such as charter
school authorizers that oversee charter schools. We also interviewed
representatives of state and local charter school organizations and
organizations representing parents of students with disabilities about their
perspective on students with disabilities’ access to charter schools.
Appendix I provides a detailed description of our methodology and its
limitations, as well as the scope.

This study was not intended to determine charter schools’ compliance
with applicable federal requirements for educating students with
disabilities.

We conducted this performance audit from February 2011 to May 2012,
in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our



2
 We use the term “traditional public school” to distinguish charter schools from other types
of public schools. For more information on the different types of public schools, see app. I.




Page 2                                              GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
             findings and conclusions based on the audit objectives. We believe that
             the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
             conclusions based on our audit objectives. We assessed the reliability of
             the data file that Education provided by (1) performing electronic data
             testing for obvious errors in accuracy and completeness, (2) reviewing
             existing information about the data and the system that produced the
             data, and (3) interviewing agency officials knowledgeable about these
             data. We determined that the data were sufficiently reliable for the
             purposes of this report.


             Charter schools are public schools created to achieve a number of goals,
Background   including encouraging innovation in public education and addressing
             failing schools. Charter schools operate with more autonomy than
             traditional public schools in exchange for agreeing to improve student
             achievement, an agreement that is formalized in a contract or charter with
             the school’s authorizing body. From about 3,000 charter schools in school
             year 2003-2004 to almost 5,000 in school year 2009-20010, the number
             of charter schools in the United States continues to grow. Spurring this
             growth are parents’ and others’ desire for schools that reflect their vision
             of public education, and federal incentives, such as the recent $4 billion
             Race to the Top (RTT) competitive grant fund, which among other things,
             encourages the growth of high performing charter schools, and the
             Charter Schools Program Grants for Replication and Expansion of High
             Quality Charter Schools.

             States specify which entities within the state can authorize the
             establishment of a charter school, including state departments of
             education, state boards of education, school districts or local educational
             agencies (LEA), institutions of higher education, and municipal
             governments. Some states have also created independent charter school
             boards that can authorize charter schools in the state. Once charter
             schools are in operation, the authorizer is generally responsible for
             monitoring school performance and has authority to close the school or
             take other actions if academic goals or state financial requirements are
             not met.

             States also define how charter schools will be structured and they do so
             in different ways (see fig. 1). For example, unlike traditional public schools
             that are part of a larger LEA, some states establish charter schools as
             their own LEA. Other states require them to be part of a larger LEA, while
             still other states allow charter schools the option to choose between being
             a distinct LEA or part of a larger LEA. Further, some states allow charter


             Page 3                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
schools to be their own LEA for some purposes and part of a larger LEA
for others, including for purposes of special education. With respect to
special education, two common practices are that (1) in states that define
a charter school to be a part of a larger LEA, the responsibility for
providing special education services to charter school students with
disabilities remains with that LEA and (2) in states where charter schools
are their own LEA, the state makes charter schools responsible for
providing the services themselves.

Figure1: Differences in Charter Schools’ LEA Status for Purposes of Special
Education




Like traditional public schools, charter schools are subject to a number of
federal requirements. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 3 and
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 4 (IDEA), as amended, are
the two primary laws that address the rights of students with disabilities to
education.

•   IDEA was enacted in 1975 and authorizes federal funding for special
    education and related services. For states that accept IDEA funding,
    the statute sets out detailed requirements regarding the provision of
    special education, including the requirement that children with
    disabilities receive a free appropriate public education. 5 In addition,



3
Codified at 29 U.S.C. § 794.
4
Codified at 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.
5
20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1).




Page 4                                        GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
    under IDEA, states must ensure that an Individualized Education
    Program (IEP) is developed and implemented for each student with a
    disability. The IEP process creates an opportunity for teachers,
    parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and
    students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational
    results for children with disabilities. These requirements apply in
    public charter schools just as they do in traditional public schools.
    IDEA provides funding and assigns responsibility for complying with
    requirements to states, and through them, to LEAs. In ensuring that
    IDEA requirements are met for students with disabilities attending
    charter schools, states may retain that responsibility or assign it to the
    charter school LEA, the larger LEA to which the charter school
    belongs, or some other public entity. 6

•   Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, enacted in 1973, is a civil rights
    statute that prohibits discrimination against an otherwise qualified
    individual with a disability solely by reason of disability in any program
    or activity receiving federal financial assistance or under any program
    or activity conducted by an executive agency. Education’s Section
    504 regulation states that no qualified person with a disability shall, on
    the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the
    benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any
    program or activities which receives federal financial assistance. 7
    Subpart D of Education’s regulation contains specific requirements
    regarding elementary and secondary education, including the
    provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each
    qualified person with a disability in the recipient’s (recipient of federal
    financial assistance) jurisdiction, regardless of the nature or severity
    of the person’s disability. 8 Even if a state declines IDEA funds, the
    state must comply with Section 504 if it receives other federal financial
    assistance. Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces Section
    504 for the department’s programs through investigation of complaints
    and compliance reviews that are initiated by the department.

•   Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended,
    prohibits discrimination based on disability in public entities, including



6
34 C.F.R. § 300.209.
7
34 C.F.R. § 104.4(a).
8
34 C.F.R. §§ 104.33-104.36.




Page 5                                      GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                             schools. 9 The Department of Justice and OCR both have jurisdiction
                             to investigate complaints under this title. 10

                        Charter schools enrolled 11 a lower percentage of students with disabilities
Enrollment Levels of    than traditional public schools in both school years 2008-2009 and 2009-
Students with           2010 (see fig. 2). 12 For example, in school year 2009-2010, there was
Disabilities in         about a 3 percentage point difference between the percentage of
                        students with disabilities enrolled in traditional public schools and charter
Traditional Public      schools. As shown in figure 2, the percentage of students with disabilities
Schools and Charter     in charter schools increased slightly between the 2 school years we
                        examined, while the percentage of students with disabilities in traditional
Schools Differed, but   public schools stayed about the same.
Little Is Known about
Factors Contributing
to Differences

                        9
                         42 U.S.C. § 12132. Public entities include any state or local government and any of its
                        departments, agencies, or other instrumentalities.
                        10
                          Pursuant to a delegation by the Attorney General of the United States, OCR shares in
                        the enforcement of Title II for all program, services, and regulatory activities related to the
                        operation of public elementary and secondary education programs, institutions of higher
                        education and vocational education (other than schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing,
                        and other health-related schools), and libraries. The Department of Justice (Justice)
                        amended its regulations in 2010 to allow Justice to exercise its discretion to retain a Title II
                        complaint that may fall within another agency’s jurisdiction. Justice stated that it would
                        consult with the other agency if it does plan to retain the complaint. 28 C.F.R. § 35.190(e)
                        and Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in State and Local Government Services,
                        75 Fed. Reg. 56, 164, 56, 229 (Sept. 15, 2010).
                        11
                          For purposes of our analysis, the term “enrolled” includes students with disabilities who
                        received special education and related services under IDEA in a regular classroom as well
                        as students in other educational environments whose services were provided through a
                        traditional public school district or charter school LEA. For more information on the
                        different educational environments for students with disabilities, see app. I.
                        12
                          The student population for our analysis includes students aged 6 to 21 in those 40
                        states with operating charter schools and the District of Columbia during school years
                        2008-2009 and 2009-2010 only. Data for students in traditional public schools in those 10
                        states without operating charter schools during school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010
                        are omitted from our analysis. We also excluded schools categorized as closed, inactive,
                        or future schools as well as charter schools with an enrollment level of zero. School-level
                        data on students with disabilities were not available for the District of Columbia,
                        Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Tennessee for school year 2008-2009 and for Tennessee
                        and Utah for school year 2009-2010. See app. I for more information.




                        Page 6                                                GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Figure 2: Percent of Students in Charter Schools and Traditional Public Schools
Who Had Disabilities Compared to Students with Disabilities’ Overall
Representation in Public Schools




Note: The student population for our analysis includes students aged 6-21 in those 40 states with
operating charter schools and the District of Columbia during school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010
only. School-level data on students with disabilities were not available for District of Columbia,
Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Tennessee for school year 2008-2009 and for Tennessee and Utah
for school year 2009-2010. Therefore, students in those states were excluded from our denominator
when calculating the percentages shown above. See app. I for more information.


When examining enrollment levels of students with disabilities in
traditional public schools and charter schools for individual states, a more
varied picture emerges. In most states, charter schools enrolled a lower
percentage of students with disabilities when compared to traditional
public schools. For example, in the state of New Hampshire, about 6
percent of students in charter schools were students with disabilities
compared to about 13 percent of students in traditional public schools.
However, in eight states—Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio,
Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming—charter schools enrolled the same
percentage or a higher percentage of students with disabilities than
traditional public schools in the state (see fig. 3). For example, in
Wyoming, the enrollment level of students with disabilities in charter
schools was about 4 percentage points greater than in traditional public
schools.




Page 7                                                 GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Figure 3: Differences in the Percentage of Students with Disabilities Enrolled in Traditional Public Schools and Charter
Schools for States with Operating Charter Schools in School Year 2009-2010




                                          a
                                           School-level data on students with disabilities were not available for Tennessee and Utah for school
                                          year 2009-2010. Data on students with disabilities in charter schools were missing for the state of
                                          New York. See app. I for more information on state-level data.

                                          We also found that, relative to traditional public schools, the proportion of
                                          charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities
                                          was lower overall and generally tapered off the greater the enrollment of
                                          students with disabilities. Specifically, the enrollment of students with
                                          disabilities was 8 to 12 percent at 23 percent of charter schools and 34
                                          percent of traditional public schools. Further, when the enrollment of
                                          students with disabilities reached 12 to16 percent, about 13 percent of
                                          charter schools compared to 25 percent of traditional public schools had
                                          these enrollment levels. However, when compared to traditional public
                                          schools, a higher percentage of charter schools enrolled more than 20
                                          percent of students with disabilities. During an interview with Education,
                                          an official noted that there has been an increase in charter schools for



                                          Page 8                                                   GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
students with disabilities, such as schools for students with autism, for
example, which may help explain this difference.

Table 1: Percent of Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools Serving
Students with Disabilities in School Year 2009-2010

 Percentage of students with                          Percent of traditional         Percent of charter
 disabilities out of each school’s                         public schools                      schools
 total enrollment                                               (N=74,673)                   (N=4,111)
 less than 4                                                                3.4                    16.8
 4 to less than 8                                                          19.3                    29.7
 8 to less than 12                                                         34.2                    23.1
 12 to less than 16                                                        24.7                    12.5
 16 to less than 20                                                        10.4                      6.1
 >=20                                                                       8.0                    11.7
Source: GAO analysis of EDFacts data and the Common Core of Data.


Note: See app. I for more information on how we arrived at the total number of traditional public
schools and charter schools in order to calculate the percentages shown and for information on
missing data.

A more detailed look at aggregate enrollment data of students with
disabilities in traditional public schools and charter schools shows that
compared to traditional public schools, charter schools enrolled a lower
percentage of students in each of the 13 disability categories 13 in school
year 2009-2010 (see fig. 4). For example, of all students enrolled in
traditional public schools, about 5 percent of students had a specific
learning disability, compared to about 4 percent of all students enrolled in
charter schools. For information about the distribution of students’
disability types, see appendix III.




13
  The 13 categories defined by IDEA are: (1) autism, (2) deaf-blindness, (3)
developmental delay, (4) emotional disturbance, (5) hearing impairment, (6) intellectual
disabilities, (7) multiple disabilities, (8) orthopedic impairment, (9) specific learning
disability, (10) speech or language impairment, (11) traumatic brain injury, (12) visual
impairment, and (13) other health impairment. Some states do not use all of these
disability categories.




Page 9                                                              GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Figure 4: Percent of Students with Disabilities Enrolled in Traditional Public Schools and Charter Schools by Disability Type
for School Year 2009-2010




                                          Note: Missing data are not shown.

                                          Of those students with disabilities who spent time in regular class, a
                                          higher percentage of students with disabilities in charter schools spent 80
                                          percent or more of the day in a regular classroom compared to those


                                          Page 10                                        GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                            students in traditional public schools (see fig. 5). For example, about 80
                            percent of students with disabilities in charter schools spent 80 percent or
                            more of the day inside regular class compared to about 62 percent of
                            students with disabilities in traditional public schools.

                            Figure 5: Amount of Time Spent inside Regular Class by Students with Disabilities,
                            School Year 2009-2010




Little Is Known about       Although there are differences in enrollment levels, the reasons for these
Factors Contributing to     differences are not entirely clear. During the course of our work, we
Differences in Enrollment   learned about several factors such as parental preference and school
                            capacity that may help explain why charter schools enroll a lower
Patterns                    percentage of students with disabilities when compared to traditional
                            public schools (see fig. 6). However, information about these factors is
                            often based on anecdotal information, and little is known about how each
                            of the factors actually contributes to differences in enrollment levels, if at
                            all.




                            Page 11                                       GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Figure 6: Selected Factors That May Contribute to Differences in Enrollment Levels of Students with Disabilities in Traditional
Public Schools and Charter Schools




                                          Parents’ preferences and students’ needs may play a role in contributing
                                          to differences in enrollment levels. For example, according to a national
                                          organization representing special educators and parents of students with
                                          disabilities, parents often weigh their options and take many things into
                                          consideration when deciding whether or not to enroll their child in a
                                          charter school. Parents may consider whether or not a charter school’s
                                          mission—such as that of a single-language immersion charter school—is
                                          philosophically aligned with their goals for their child. Parents also may
                                          consider the availability of transportation, what grades the charter school
                                          serves, and whether the charter school’s special education services
                                          would meet their child’s needs.

                                          Anecdotal accounts also suggest that some charter schools may be
                                          discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling and denying
                                          admission to students with more severe disabilities because services are
                                          too costly. Representatives of a parent organization we spoke with said



                                          Page 12                                         GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
that some charter schools do not identify disabilities or document special
education services, but rather provide the interventions “informally,”
without including them on students’ IEPs. The representatives expressed
concern about this practice, because if a student transfers to another
school, the school may not be aware of the types of services the student
had previously been receiving. Furthermore, some charter schools give
“placement exams,” which schools say are designed to provide baseline
information on students’ knowledge, but representatives of this
organization said that these types of exams can be frustrating to some
students with disabilities and may discourage them from enrolling.
However, there are no comprehensive data to determine the extent to
which charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from
enrolling or the extent to which such practices actually contribute to
differences in enrollment levels.

Moreover, how placement decisions are made for students with
disabilities may also influence enrollment levels. For example, in some
instances, charter schools are not ultimately responsible for making the
final placement decision for students with disabilities. This is the case for
those charter schools that are part of a larger LEA where final placement
decisions for students with disabilities are made by the LEA, not the
charter school. It may be the case that more often than not, LEAs
determine that traditional public schools, not charter schools, are in a
better position to commit resources and to ensure that the services
agreed upon in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) can
adequately be provided. For example, charter schools may not have the
same capacity, resources (e.g., space), knowledge, or experience
necessary to serve students with specified disabilities. In addition, charter
school LEAs may face challenges acquiring special education services or
providers because charter school LEAs, which are often smaller than
traditional public school districts, may not have the same resources that
larger-sized school districts have. Different state funding formulas for
special education may also drive placement decisions. For example,
some states provide a higher level of funding for special education based
on the severity of a student’s disability, making it more feasible financially
for schools to serve students with more severe disabilities. In contrast,
other states do not take such factors into consideration when providing
funding for special education, which may place a heavy financial burden
on individual schools.

The distribution of grade levels in traditional public schools and charter
schools differs, which may contribute to differences in enrollment levels of
students with disabilities as well. Education’s National Center for


Page 13                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                        Education Statistics (NCES) reported that elementary schools constituted
                        71 percent of traditional public schools compared to 54 percent of charter
                        schools during school year 2008-2009. 14 Therefore, parents of
                        elementary school-aged children with disabilities may find fewer charter
                        school options because a lower percentage of charter schools serve this
                        age group and because charter schools represent a small percentage of
                        all public schools nationwide. 15

                        Further, we heard anecdotally from charter school representatives and
                        researchers that, following a reassessment, school officials may
                        determine that a student that previously had an IEP no longer needs
                        special education, which could account for the lower percentages of
                        students with disabilities in charter schools. 16 However, there are no
                        available data to support this, and an Education official suggested that
                        students with disabilities in general do not leave special education in large
                        numbers.


                        Most of the 13 charter schools we visited reported using multiple
Charter Schools We      strategies to publicize the availability of special education services in their
Visited Offer Special   school and the charter school’s presence in the community. For example,
                        some charter school officials mentioned word-of-mouth as a way of
Education Services,     informing parents about their school. 17 Some also reported distributing
but Faced Challenges    fliers in the community, mailing fliers to parents of every kindergarten
with Severe             student or 5th grader, or placing ads in the local newspaper or other
                        media. Some schools said that they did not specifically target students
Disabilities            with disabilities.




                        14
                          Secondary and combined schools accounted for 27 and 19 percent of charter schools,
                        respectively, and for 24 and 5 percent of traditional public schools, respectively.
                        15
                          In school year 2008-2009, approximately 45 percent of all school-aged students with
                        disabilities were aged 6 to 10; 24 percent of students were aged 11-13; 25 percent 14-18;
                        and 6 percent 19-21.
                        16
                          Education collects data on the number of students with disabilities, ages 14 through 21
                        only, who exited special education. Therefore, there are no comprehensive data for all
                        school-aged students who leave special education.
                        17
                          A table describing the characteristics of the charter schools we visited is provided in
                        appendix I.




                        Page 14                                             GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
In combination with these more informal strategies, many of the charter
schools we visited also said that they held an open house or meeting
during which prospective students and their parents could visit the school,
ask questions, and tour the school. Some saw the open houses as an
opportunity to discuss the special education services they offered.
Officials at one school said that their special education teachers attended
the open house and discussed their program, including any limitations in
the school’s special education offerings. Several of the charter schools
could not accommodate all of the students wishing to enroll and held a
lottery to determine admission. Some said that they had waiting lists and
emphasized that they accepted students on a first come, first served
basis, and thus give no preference to students with disabilities or other
student subgroup.

Many of the charter school officials we interviewed demonstrated
awareness that inquiring about a student’s disability status on the charter
school application might be perceived as an attempt to discourage
enrollment and took steps to minimize the possibility. For example, in two
of the states we visited, in charter schools that asked parents to fill out an
application form, charter school officials said that the form did not ask
questions about the student’s disability status. Once the child was
accepted to the school and enrolled, some schools asked parents to fill
out an enrollment form that asked for information about the child’s health
history, and, if transferring from another school, about the child’s prior
academic program, including receipt of special education services.
Charter school officials emphasized that questions about disability status
or prior receipt of special education services were not asked on the
application form and made reference to state requirements that prohibited
such questions before enrollment. According to state officials, such
questions were prohibited to prevent charter school officials from using
the information to identify students that were potentially more costly to
serve and to attempt to discourage the parents from enrolling such
students before an assessment of their needs was done.

In contrast, some charter school officials in one of the three states we
visited did include questions about receipt of special education services
and whether the child had an IEP on the charter school application form.
Officials representing the school acknowledged that the application
includes such questions but said that they look at the application only for
name, address and telephone number. Officials at another charter school
reported that the school’s admission application collects information about
whether a child has special needs, but discounted the accuracy of the



Page 15                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                             information, saying that some parents of students with disabilities become
                             confused about the services their child has received and the terminology.


Charter Schools Reported     Many of the charter school officials we interviewed reported providing
Tailoring Special            services specific to each child’s needs. The special education services
Education Services to        offered by most of the charter schools we visited included speech and
                             language therapy, occupational and physical therapy, counseling, and
Individual Students’ Needs   academic supports, usually in reading and math. Some charter schools
                             visited offered vision, hearing, and behavioral supports and some
                             mentioned providing technologies to assist students with more severe
                             learning disabilities.

                             Almost all of the charter schools we visited offered special education
                             services to students in the regular classroom for most of the day, with
                             “pull-out” sessions in a resource room for more focused services. The
                             term “pull-out” sessions refers to the practice of providing special
                             education services for students with disabilities in a place that is separate
                             from the regular classroom. One school reported using “push-in”
                             sessions, in which the special education teacher went into the classroom
                             to provide special education services. Officials at three schools reported
                             teaching students in a self-contained classroom, but some said they did
                             not have the resources to provide that type of educational environment.
                             One charter school official said that when a student’s IEP includes a
                             service that the school does not offer, such as a self-contained
                             classroom, the IEP committee has modified the IEP to accommodate
                             facility limitations while still meeting the needs of the child. For example,
                             that school offered more intensive services in the general classroom
                             staffed by a general education teacher, a special education teacher and a
                             teaching assistant, for students whose IEP specifies those services.

                             When faced with a need for services by a child already enrolled that were
                             greater than the charter school could provide, the charter schools we
                             visited took different approaches. In charter schools where the district
                             was responsible for placement, most of the charter school officials we
                             interviewed said that the school district intervened to decide the
                             appropriate placement for the child and inform the parents. In contrast,
                             charter school LEAs took different approaches. One said that parents
                             were told during an IEP meeting that the school could not serve certain
                             severe disabilities. Before moving the child, officials reconvened the IEP
                             meeting to consider the decision. Two others discussed the issue with the
                             parents, but allowed them to make the decision on where to place the
                             child, without reference to an IEP placement decision meeting.


                             Page 16                                    GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
About Half of the Charter     Officials representing about half of the 13 charter schools we visited said
Schools We Interviewed        that having sufficient resources to serve students with more severe
Cited Insufficient            disabilities, including providing a self-contained classroom when needed,
                              was their greatest challenge. For example, two officials said that their
Resources to Serve Severe     school facility could not provide a self-contained classroom. A third official
Disabilities as a Challenge   explained that providing a self contained classroom is especially
                              challenging because of the need to provide separate classrooms for each
                              grade grouping as well as teachers. Thus, if a school had 3rd and 4th
                              graders requiring self-contained classrooms, they would need to have
                              space to accommodate two separate classrooms. The official said that
                              the charter school would not have enough teachers to cover those
                              different grade levels. According to representatives of charter school
                              organizations we interviewed, providing services to students with severe
                              disabilities can be very costly and some charter schools could face
                              severe financial difficulties serving students with very severe disabilities.

                              Charter schools that cited insufficient resources as a challenge included
                              both charter school LEAs and charter schools within a district. Other
                              resource challenges school officials cited included the cost of specialists’
                              services, and obtaining staff qualified to serve their students’ needs, such
                              as a bilingual special education teacher or a specialist to teach an autistic
                              child. However, two charter schools within a district said that, because the
                              district provided all services needed, the cost of services was not a
                              challenge. Both charter schools were located in the same school district.


                              The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for ensuring equal access
Education Is                  to education through enforcement of the civil rights laws, including
Reviewing Admission           Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. OCR has issued regulations
                              implementing Section 504 and conducts complaint investigations and
Practices, and Some           compliance reviews to determine if entities that receive federal financial
States Have                   assistance from Education are in compliance with these regulations. The
Implemented                   Section 504 regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability by
                              recipients and subrecipients of federal financial assistance from
Preventive Measures           Education. 18 The Section 504 regulations also require that entities that
                              receive federal financial assistance from Education and that operate
                              public elementary or secondary schools provide a free appropriate public
                              education to qualified students with disabilities regardless of the nature or



                              18
                               34 C.F.R. Part 104.




                              Page 17                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
severity of the disability. 19 In addition, OCR issues guidance that explains
the requirements of the regulations and in 2000 issued “Applying Federal
Civil Rights Laws to Public Charter Schools, Questions and Answers”
about the civil rights requirements applicable to charter schools, including
Section 504 requirements. OCR also provides technical assistance to
school districts, parents, and other stakeholders regarding the
requirements of Section 504.

During fiscal year 2010, OCR told us that it had investigated complaints
concerning students with disabilities in charter schools. According to
OCR, more than 50 percent of all the complaints OCR received that year
concerned disabilities, but of those complaints, about 2 percent were
made against charter schools. 20 OCR could not readily determine from its
complaint management system how many of those complaints concerned
admission to charter schools.

OCR officials also said that OCR has several broad compliance reviews
underway related to students with disabilities and charter schools. Four of
37 compliance reviews OCR began conducting in fiscal year 2011 focus
on charter schools. Of these, two pertain to recruitment and admissions
issues and two address FAPE. Officials said that because all of these
reviews are currently ongoing, they were unable to share details of what
they have found thus far. The officials said that their compliance reviews
involve extensive investigations that may last up to a year and result in
reports of findings and violations, if any, which are posted on OCR’s
website. They said they thought that the ongoing reviews were the first
that had included issues of students with disabilities and charter schools.

Additionally, Justice officials we interviewed said that the department has
recently amended its regulations to permit it to retain complaints under
Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended,


19
  34 C.F.R. §§ 104.33-104.36. OCR stated that it recognizes that state charter school
laws may affect how responsibilities are allocated among varying entities in connection
with the provision of FAPE for students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools. In
enforcing Section 504 regulations, OCR stated that its responsibility is to determine
whether students with disabilities are treated in a nondiscriminatory manner and are
provided a FAPE. OCR also noted that there is nothing in its regulations or guidance that
indicates that the obligations of recipients to provide nondiscriminatory admissions and a
FAPE are limited because of factors such as a lack of resources.
20
  In school year 2009-2010, approximately 3.6 percent of all students enrolled in public
schools were enrolled in charter schools.




Page 18                                            GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                           which may include complaints of discrimination against students with
                           disabilities by public schools, including charter schools. Justice’s Civil
                           Rights Division conducts the investigations, and told us that its jurisdiction
                           would include complaints related to admissions issues, including the
                           types of questions asked by charter schools in applications as well as
                           schools’ practices and procedures for serving students with disabilities.
                           However, the Civil Rights Division’s data collection system does not
                           capture the number of complaints it received by type of disability or type
                           of school.


Education’s Guidance and   In 2000, Education both issued its guidance on applying federal civil
Research May Not Address   rights laws to public charter schools and sponsored an in-depth study
the Range of Issues        highlighting issues about students with disabilities’ access to charter
                           schools. However, although the number of charter schools has increased
Confronting Charter        since the issuance of this guidance and research, Education has not
Schools Today              updated its guidance, and officials in Education’s Program and Policy
                           Studies Service and Institute for Education Sciences are not aware of
                           further research that might address the challenges and issues confronting
                           charter schools today. Education’s guidance addresses a number of
                           issues, including issues related to the education of students with
                           disabilities. For example, with respect to outreach and recruitment
                           practices, the guidance provides that schools may not discriminate
                           against students with disabilities, among others, and that recruiting efforts
                           should be directed at all segments of the community served by the
                           school, including students with disabilities. Regarding admissions, the
                           guidance specifically states that charter schools may not categorically
                           deny admission to students on the basis of disability, including a student’s
                           need for special education or related aids and services. The guidance
                           also notes that when an enrolled student is believed to have a disability,
                           the school is required to follow appropriate procedures to identify and
                           refer the student for evaluation in a timely manner. While the guidance
                           does provide basic information about charter school practices concerning
                           students with disabilities, it does not provide more detailed information on
                           the acceptability of specific practices, such as asking on a charter school
                           application form whether a child has a disability or previously had an IEP.

                           Education also sponsored an in-depth study of students with disabilities’
                           access to charter schools in 2000. This study, issued by the Office of
                           Educational Research and Improvement, examined some of the factors
                           that may explain the difference in students with disabilities’ enrollment in
                           charter schools and traditional public schools, most prominently
                           highlighting a practice where parents of students with disabilities were


                           Page 19                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                             being discouraged during the admissions process from enrolling their
                             students in charter schools. 21 The study, based on site visits to 35 charter
                             schools, detailed a lack of fit between the curriculum and the student’s
                             needs and insufficient resources as reasons given for discouraging
                             enrollment of students with disabilities. 22 At the time of this study, the
                             charter school population was less than one third its current size, and this
                             study may not fully explain the factors underlying lower enrollment levels
                             in charter schools.


All Three of the States We   Among the three state educational agencies (SEA) we visited, all have
Visited Monitored Charter    implemented measures addressing admission practices in some capacity.
Schools’ Admission           One SEA reported that it had developed detailed monitoring and
                             guidance for charter schools concerning their responsibilities for serving
Practices                    students with disabilities. 23 This SEA said that charter schools are
                             advised of their IDEA responsibilities in the school’s application to the
                             state for federal grant funds and in the state application to become a
                             charter school. This SEA also reported that a nondiscrimination clause is
                             included in the state’s charter school application, which it said precludes
                             charter schools from asking for information about disability status or prior
                             receipt of special education services in their applications for admission.
                             Admission and enrollment forms are reviewed intensively as part of the
                             charter school application and renewal process. 24




                             21
                               See Thomas Fiore, Lessley M. Harwell, Jose Blackorby and Kara S. Finnegan, Students
                             with Disabilities in Charter Schools: A National Study (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department
                             of Education, 2000).
                             22
                               The study employed a purposive sample of schools based on five variables that defined
                             key characteristics of charter schools. The variables, identified from a review of research,
                             represented factors that may influence charter schools’ capacity to serve students with
                             disabilities. The variables were (1) proportion of students with disabilities enrolled, (2)
                             federal public charter school grant recipient status, (3) level of operational autonomy
                             based on the extent of the schools’ control over admissions and budgets, (4) grade levels
                             served, and (5) geographic region.
                             23
                               At the state level, SEAs oversee compliance with IDEA’s requirements for identification
                             and assessment of students with disabilities and the provision of a free appropriate public
                             education. In addition, SEAs may assist the state authorizer with its charter school
                             oversight responsibilities, including accepting and reviewing applications to become a
                             charter school and assessment of the charter school’s performance at charter renewal.
                             24
                              However, this SEA monitors only charter school LEAs authorized by the State Board of
                             Education.




                             Page 20                                             GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
              A second SEA sponsors webinars and works with charter schools prior to
              schools opening so that charter schools have more opportunities to learn
              about the regulations and their responsibilities for educating students with
              disabilities before they open. For example, this SEA is developing a
              webinar on how to implement state charter school law requirements that
              set enrollment targets for students with disabilities for all charter schools.
              The law also required the SEA to develop a uniform, statewide charter
              school admission form. The SEA official we interviewed told us that the
              state’s admission form does not include questions concerning disability
              status. While parents’ needs and preferences may influence their
              decisions about whether or not to place their child in a charter school, the
              law requires charter schools to demonstrate a good-faith effort to recruit
              them. The third SEA also does not allow charter schools to ask applicants
              about anything related to their need for special education services at the
              time they apply for admission to the school.

              In contrast to the SEAs, the school district authorizers interviewed
              reported little monitoring of charter schools’ recruitment or special
              education service delivery plans.


              Against the backdrop of a growing and changing charter school
Conclusions   landscape, we found that enrollment of students with disabilities in the
              aggregate is lower in charter schools than in traditional public schools.
              Whether these enrollment differences will persist or continue to narrow is
              difficult to predict, given the lack of information about factors underlying
              these differences and how they affect enrollment levels. By issuing
              guidance that raises awareness about the practices that might be
              perceived as an attempt to discourage enrollment, officials in the states
              we visited have already begun to take steps to forestall the possibility that
              charter school admission practices play a role in lower enrollment levels
              in charter schools. However, the guidance Education issued in 2000,
              while important in providing basic information to charter schools with
              respect to students with disabilities, does not provide more detailed
              information on the acceptability of specific admission practices under
              applicable civil rights laws. Moreover, while Education sponsored
              research several years ago that pointed out problems in charter school
              admission practices, we believe that the study’s findings do not
              adequately address the range of possible factors affecting enrollment
              raised in our report.




              Page 21                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                      To help charter schools recognize practices that may affect enrollment of
Recommendations for   students with disabilities and improve the information available for
Executive Action      monitoring and oversight, we recommend that the Secretary of Education
                      do the following:

                      1. Update existing guidance to ensure that charter schools have better
                         information about their obligations related to the enrollment of
                         students with disabilities.

                      2. Conduct additional fact finding and research to understand the factors
                         affecting enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools and
                         act upon that information, as appropriate.


                      We provided a draft of this report to the U.S. Department of Education for
Agency Comments       review and comment. The comments are reproduced in appendix IV.
and Our Evaluation
                      Education agreed with our findings and recommendations. Education
                      commented that it is committed to providing meaningful updated guidance
                      to its stakeholders and that it is actively working with the charter school
                      community, parents, civil rights organizations, and other stakeholders to
                      determine what additional questions are most pressing and what type of
                      revised guidance would be useful. The department also said that it
                      anticipates that the knowledge gained from the four compliance reviews
                      currently underway will provide additional insights into compliance issues
                      specific to charter schools that could inform the development of guidance.
                      Further, Education said that based on information they have received to
                      date, including information provided in our study, the department is
                      considering additional or updated guidance for charter schools related to
                      recruitment, admissions, accessibility, and the provision of a free
                      appropriate public education (FAPE). With respect to our second
                      recommendation, Education said that over the next several years, it
                      proposes to examine issues underlying enrollment of students with
                      disabilities in several ways. For example, it plans to conduct focus groups
                      with parents of students with disabilities in a sample of communities with
                      a larger charter school presence, compile a set of case studies of charter
                      schools with both high and low enrollment of students with disabilities,
                      and review state polices and guidance concerning students with
                      disabilities in charter schools. Education also provided technical
                      comments, which have been incorporated in the report as appropriate.




                      Page 22                                   GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
As agreed with your offices, unless you publicly announce the contents of
this report earlier, we plan no further distribution until 30 days from the
report date. At that time, we will send copies to the Secretary of
Education.

In addition, the report will be available at no charge on GAO’s website at
http://www.gao.gov. If you or your staff have any questions about this
report, please contact me at (202) 512-7215 or scottg@gao.gov. Contact
points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs can
be found on the last page of this report. GAO staff who made major
contributions to this report are listed in appendix V.




George A. Scott
Director
Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues




Page 23                                   GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology
             Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




             This appendix discusses our methodology for examining enrollment levels
             of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public
             schools, the types of services charter schools provide, and the U.S.
             Department of Education’s (Education) role in ensuring students with
             disabilities’ access. The work was framed around three questions: (1)
             How do enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools
             and traditional public schools compare, and what is known about the
             factors that may contribute to any differences? (2) How do charter
             schools reach out to students with disabilities and what special education
             services do charter schools provide? (3) What roles do the U.S.
             Department of Education, state educational agencies (SEA), and other
             entities that oversee charter schools play in ensuring students with
             disabilities’ access to charter schools?

             To compare enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter
             schools and traditional public schools, we examined school-level data on
             counts of students with disabilities for those 41 states 1 with operating
             charter schools in school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 only. To
             accurately compare enrollment levels, we did not include data for those
             10 states without operating charter schools in our analysis. We conducted
             an analysis of the data at the aggregate level, as well as at the state level,
             since the aggregate analysis may mask differences in enrollment levels.
             To complement the aggregate analysis, we examined how charter
             schools reach out to students with disabilities and the types of services
             charter schools provide in selected states, and interviewed the relevant
             oversight agencies.

             To address the questions, we used several sources of data, including
             data for school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the most recent data
             available at the time, from a custom data file provided to us by Education,
             which includes counts of students with disabilities at the school-level; site
             visit interviews with officials from charter schools and school districts in
             three states selected on the basis of states with a large number of charter
             schools, a mix in local educational agency (LEA) status and geographic
             diversity; and interviews with Education, Department of Justice, and SEA
             officials, and charter school authorizers. We also interviewed
             representatives of state and local charter school organizations and




             1
              For purposes of this report, we include the District of Columbia in our analysis of states.




             Page 24                                             GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                    Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




                    organizations representing parents of students with disabilities about their
                    perspective on students with disabilities’ access to charter schools.

                    Before deciding to use the data provided by Education, we conducted a
                    data reliability assessment. We assessed the reliability of the data file that
                    Education provided by (1) performing electronic data testing for obvious
                    errors in accuracy and completeness, (2) reviewing existing information
                    about the data and the system that produced the data, and (3)
                    interviewing agency officials knowledgeable about these data. We
                    determined that the data were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this
                    report. We discuss our assessment procedures and steps we took to
                    mitigate any data limitations in more detail below, as part of the
                    methodology for determining enrollment levels of students with disabilities
                    in charter schools and traditional public schools. We conducted
                    descriptive analyses of the students with disabilities data, a qualitative
                    analysis of the site visit data, and a synthesis of the interviews with
                    federal officials, SEA officials, and charter school authorizers, in addition
                    to reviewing relevant federal laws and regulations. To obtain an
                    alternative perspective, we also interviewed organizations representing
                    charter schools and parents of students with disabilities in the
                    communities of our site visit locations.

                    This study was not intended to determine charter schools’ compliance
                    with applicable federal requirements for educating students with
                    disabilities.


                    To compare enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter
Procedures for      schools and traditional public schools, we analyzed data for school years
Analyzing Data on   2008-2009 and 2009-2010, the most recent data available at the time,
                    from a custom data file provided to us by Education. To prepare the file,
Students with       Education analysts extracted the data elements we specified from the
Disabilities        department’s large-scale EDFacts data system. The custom data file
                    includes counts of students with disabilities at the school-level, which are
                    reported to EDFacts by SEAs through Education’s Data Exchange
                    Network (EDEN) Submission System. This custom data file also includes
                    the number of students with disabilities, aged 6-21, served both in charter
                    schools and traditional public schools, disability type, the educational
                    environment in which students with disabilities receive services, and
                    whether each school is its own local educational agency (LEA) or part of
                    a larger LEA. While we received data for school years 2008-2009 and
                    2009-2010, we decided to focus our analysis on data from school year
                    2009-2010 because states were required to submit more school-level


                    Page 25                                    GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




information in 2009-2010 than in 2008-2009, and because we could not
establish trends or patterns by analyzing only 2 years of data.

We were able to distinguish charter schools from traditional public
schools using the charter school indicator for each school included in the
custom data file. We use the term “traditional public school” in order to
distinguish between charter schools and other types of public schools
included in the custom data file. For purposes of our analysis, traditional
public schools include regular schools, special education schools,
vocational education schools, alternative or other schools, and reportable
programs. Charter schools may also be vocational schools or special
education schools, for example, but we did not include school type
variations as a variable in our analyses.

The custom data file provided by Education includes counts of children
who received special education and related services under the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) according to an Individualized
Education Program (IEP), Individual Family Service Plan, or services
plan. The data file contains an educational environment variable which
provides more detail on the setting in which students receive special
education and related services. The variable includes several response
categories in addition to a regular classroom setting. For example, a small
percentage of students with disabilities included in the custom data file
were placed in settings other than a regular classroom such as a
correctional facility, a residential facility, or a separate school. In addition,
a very small percentage of students included in the custom data file were
not “enrolled” in either a traditional public school or a charter school, but
were homebound or in hospitals or were parentally placed in private
schools. However, students in these types of settings may receive special
education services from a traditional public school district or charter
school LEA and may be included in a school’s student count. For
example, in some states, parentally-placed students in private schools
who are also receiving special education services through a regular public
school are included in the child count for that public school by the LEA.
This is done to avoid duplicating counts of students with disabilities who
may receive special education services from more than one school.

In order to calculate the total number of students enrolled in charter
schools and traditional public schools, we obtained all schools’ total
enrollment for school years 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 from Education’s
Common Core of Data (CCD) and matched this information electronically
to each of the schools in the custom data file, because the custom data
file provides school-level counts of students with disabilities only, not total


Page 26                                      GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




enrollment counts. In those instances where there was no match in CCD
(697 cases), we excluded those schools from our analysis. Schools
categorized as closed, inactive, or future schools, as well as charter
schools with an enrollment level of zero (3,106 cases), were also
excluded from our analysis.

Matching schools’ total enrollment numbers from CCD to each of the
schools in the custom data file allowed us to arrive at the total number of
students enrolled at each individual school included in our analysis, as
well as the total number of students enrolled in all charter schools and
traditional public schools for those 41 states with operating charter
schools. In some states, charter schools that are their own local
educational agency (LEA) may operate more than one school or campus,
often serving different grade levels. In our custom data file, some charter
school LEAs operate more than one charter school, and schools within
these charter school LEAs share the same LEA identifier. However, each
school or campus within the LEA possesses a unique school identifier
(see app. II for more information on charter schools’ LEA status). For
purposes of our analysis, each campus with a unique school identifier
counts as one school.

For most of our analyses, the unit of analysis was students, rather than
schools. We calculated the percentage of students with disabilities
enrolled in charter schools and traditional public schools by adding the
school-level counts of students with disabilities in charter schools and
traditional public schools from the custom data file and by dividing by the
total number of students enrolled in all charter schools and traditional
public schools, respectively, using enrollment data from CCD. We also
conducted additional analyses at the aggregate level based on cross-
tabulations using the number of students with disabilities and variables
such as disability type, and educational environment.

In addition to the aggregate analysis on students with disabilities, we also
analyzed enrollment levels of students with disabilities at the state-level,
for those 41 states with operating charter schools in school year 2009-
2010. According to technical notes provided by Education, 27 states
operated less than 100 charter schools. The availability and quality of the
data in our custom data file vary by state. For example, some states that
operated charter schools did not submit school-level data to Education on
students with disabilities. In addition, while the percentages shown in
figure 2 of the report were calculated using school-level data on students
with disabilities, aggregations at the school-level do not always equal the
aggregations at the LEA and state levels. For example, when states


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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




submit annual data on students with disabilities to Education, they are not
required to submit school-level data for children with disabilities who are
homebound or in hospitals, or for those students with disabilities who are
parentally-placed in private schools. Therefore, in the custom data file, for
those states that did not submit school-level data for children in these
educational settings, total counts of students with disabilities at the school
level were less than total counts at the LEA and state levels.

For schools in the 41 states with operating charter schools in school year
2009-2010, data on counts of students with disabilities at the school-level
were missing for 784 out of 4,895 charter schools (16 percent) and for
5,998 out of 80,671 traditional public schools (7 percent). Missing data
represent both those schools that did not enroll any students with
disabilities and therefore were not required to report information, as well
as any schools that may have enrolled students with disabilities, but did
not report the data. We were not able to distinguish between the two
types of missing data.

Tennessee and Utah—two states with operating charter schools—
reported data on students with disabilities at the district and state levels,
but did not report data on counts of students with disabilities at the
school-level. Because our analysis was based on total counts of school-
level data, data on students with disabilities in charter schools and
traditional public schools were missing for these two states. Missing data
for these two states combined represent 94 of the 784 charter schools
with missing data, and 2,609 of the 5,998 traditional public schools with
missing data. Because school-level data on counts of students with
disabilities were missing for Tennessee and Utah, when calculating the
percentages of students with disabilities in all charter schools and
traditional public schools, we excluded total student enrollment numbers
for charter schools and traditional public schools in these two states from
our denominator when dividing by the total number of students enrolled in
charter schools and traditional public schools. Similarly, for school year
2008-2009, we excluded total enrollment numbers for charter schools and
traditional public schools in the District of Columbia, Mississippi, Rhode
Island, and Tennessee because school-level data on counts of students
with disabilities were missing.

We reported information paying particular attention to tabulations based
on small cell sizes or cross-tabulations of the same data by other
variables, in such a way as to prevent direct or indirect disclosure of
information that would allow the identification of particular students or
schools. To prevent the potential for identifying personal information from


Page 28                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                        Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




                        the EDFacts custom data file, we only present data with categories that
                        have a count of 10 or greater. If the number of cases is less than 10, the
                        data were either suppressed or collapsed with other categories to create
                        a count of 10 or greater.

                        In addition to analyzing data on students with disabilities in charter
                        schools and traditional public schools by disability type and educational
                        environment, we also attempted to analyze the data at the metropolitan
                        level and to include charter school LEA status as a variable in our cross-
                        tabulations. However, data limitations and design issues prevented us
                        from including findings at the metropolitan level and on charter schools’
                        LEA status in our report. For more information, see appendix II.

                        To determine some of the factors that may contribute to differences in
                        enrollment levels, we relied on conversations with representatives of
                        charter school organizations and researchers, information learned during
                        our site visits to charter schools and districts in three states, interviews
                        with federal and state officials, and existing research on charter schools.
                        We also interviewed individuals familiar with available research on the
                        topic of students with disabilities in charter schools and identified
                        research through these sources. For several of the factors cited in this
                        report, much of the research we reviewed and information we received
                        was based on anecdotal information, and information on factors
                        contributing to differences in enrollment levels is inconclusive. For those
                        studies with quantitative analyses on students with disabilities in charter
                        schools, we did not conduct a methodological assessment of each study’s
                        methodological quality, and therefore cannot confirm the reliability of
                        these data.


                        To examine how charter schools reach out to students with disabilities,
Site Visit Selection,   the types of services charter schools provide, and any challenges they
Data Collection, and    may face in doing so, we conducted site visits to a major metropolitan
                        area in three states. We selected these locations on the basis of the
Analysis                number of charter schools in the state, a mix in LEA status and
                        geographic diversity. Characteristics of the sites visited are summarized
                        below.




                        Page 29                                   GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                                              Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




Table 2: Site Visit Characteristics

                                Number of                                                               No. of charter
                           charter schools           Charter schools’                                   schools in the   Geographic
City and state                      visited          LEA status               Authorizer type                    state   location
City and state 1                         4           Own LEA—2                SEA, State Board of                 536    South
                                                     Part of larger LEA—2     Education, LEA
City and state 2                         5           Own LEA— all             State Board of                      504    West
                                                                              Education,
                                                                              Independent Charter
                                                                              School Board, LEA
City and state 3                         4           Part of larger LEA for   State university, State             139    Northeast
                                                     special education—all    education
                                                                              department,
                                                                              LEA
                                              Source: GAO.


                                              During the site visits, we interviewed officials from charter schools to
                                              obtain information about the special education services the charter school
                                              provides; the educational environment in which services are provided;
                                              challenges faced in providing services; and the charter school’s LEA
                                              status. We compared responses about LEA status and services provided
                                              to determine if LEA status is related to the types of services charter
                                              schools offer to students with disabilities. We also asked questions about
                                              outreach strategies, which provided us with information about whether
                                              schools are actively seeking to enroll students with disabilities. The
                                              findings of our analysis cannot be generalized to the charter school
                                              population or states with operating charter schools.


                                              To determine the role Education and other organizations play in ensuring
Interviews with                               students with disabilities’ access to charter schools, we reviewed relevant
Charter School                                federal laws and regulations and interviewed Education, Department of
                                              Justice, and SEA officials, and charter school authorizers. At Education,
Authorizers and State                         we interviewed representatives from the Office of Special Education and
and Federal Agency                            Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the
Officials                                     Office of Innovation and Improvement (OII), and the Office of Elementary
                                              and Secondary Education (OESE) regarding their responsibilities for
                                              oversight of states, school districts, and charter schools. Open ended
                                              questions were used to guide the discussions and the topics included

                                              •    policy or guidance concerning enrollment of students with disabilities
                                                   in charter schools




                                              Page 30                                            GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




•   collaboration with other Education offices or Justice’s Civil Rights
    Division in providing guidance to charter schools about enrollment of
    students with disabilities,

•   any assistance provided to charter schools to pool resources for
    serving students with more severe disabilities,

•   any assistance provided to states concerning their monitoring of
    charter schools’ implementation of IDEA, and

•   any research sponsored or supported concerning students with
    disabilities and charter schools.

We also interviewed representatives of state and local charter school
organizations and organizations representing parents of students with
disabilities about their perspective on students with disabilities’ access to
charter schools.




Page 31                                     GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix II: Additional Analysis
                     Appendix II: Additional Analysis




                     In addition to conducting analyses at the aggregate level, we also
                     attempted to analyze the data at the metropolitan level and to include
                     charter school local educational agency (LEA) status as a variable in our
                     cross-tabulations. However, data limitations and design issues prevented
                     us from including findings at the metropolitan level and on charter
                     schools’ LEA status in our report.


                     Due to variation in charter school structure and policies across states,
Metropolitan-Level   and because decisions about the placement of students with disabilities in
Analysis             charter schools, traditional public schools, or a separate facility of some
                     type, are made at the school district level, and placement decisions vary
                     according to students’ needs, aggregated data may mask differences in
                     enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and
                     traditional public schools at the metropolitan level. Therefore, in addition
                     to an aggregate and state-level analysis for the 41 states with operating
                     charter schools, we also attempted to analyze counts of students with
                     disabilities at the school-level for selected metropolitan areas. However,
                     several factors hindered us from conducting this type of analysis. Some of
                     the metropolitan areas we considered were missing data on students with
                     disabilities, while geographical issues presented challenges in other
                     areas. Specifically, in states where charter schools are their own LEA, it
                     was not always clear where the charter schools were physically located in
                     the metropolitan area, and therefore difficult to determine which traditional
                     public school district should serve as the appropriate basis of comparison.
                     This is especially true for charter schools located in large metropolitan
                     cities with more than one school district. In addition, charter schools’
                     service areas are not always as well defined as the boundaries for
                     traditional public school districts, and charter schools may enroll students
                     from different school districts across the entire metropolitan area, which
                     also complicates designing this type of data analysis.

                     We did, however, conduct an exploratory analysis of enrollment levels of
                     students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools
                     for one metropolitan area. For this particular area, all of the charter
                     schools are part of a larger LEA. To protect the privacy of students with
                     disabilities, we have not disclosed the name of the metropolitan area.
                     Results from our analysis showed that the percentage of students with
                     disabilities in charter schools was lower than in traditional public schools.
                     However, these results cannot be generalized to other metropolitan
                     areas, and had we been able to conduct this type of analysis for several
                     different locations based on variation in LEA structure and geographic
                     location, our analysis may have produced mixed results.


                     Page 32                                    GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                    Appendix II: Additional Analysis




                    Charter school experts we spoke with also indicated that charter schools’
Local Educational   LEA status may affect enrollment levels of students with disabilities in
Agency (LEA)        charter schools because charter schools that are their own LEA have
                    different responsibilities for serving students with disabilities than charter
Analysis            schools that are part of a traditional public school district. For example,
                    traditional public school districts oversee the placement of students with
                    disabilities in charter schools that are part of the school district and are
                    often responsible for providing special education services for those
                    charter schools, whereas charter schools that are their own LEA are
                    legally responsible for providing or securing special education services
                    themselves. According to an Education official, in addition to satisfying
                    any Individualized Education Program eligibility requirements, for those
                    charter schools that are their own LEA, the school also assumes the
                    responsibility of enforcing least restrictive environment service provision
                    requirements for students with disabilities, as well as acting as the
                    responsible party during any due process hearings. Therefore, we also
                    attempted to conduct an analysis including charter schools’ LEA status as
                    a variable in our cross-tabulations to see how enrollment levels of
                    students with disabilities may differ within the charter school population.
                    However, several limitations prohibited us from analyzing information on
                    LEA status in the findings section of this report, which we discuss below.

                    Using the LEA identifier from the EDFacts custom data file, we were able
                    to identify charter schools that are part of a larger, traditional public
                    school district, as well as those individual charter schools that are their
                    own LEA. However, even though a charter school may be its own LEA,
                    depending on state law, the school may be part of a larger district for
                    purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 1
                    Therefore, any type of analysis including charter schools’ LEA status may
                    not necessarily provide meaningful insight into who is responsible for
                    providing special education services or why enrollment levels of students
                    with disabilities might differ in charter school LEAs and charter schools
                    within a district.

                    Furthermore, some undetermined proportion of charter school LEAs in
                    our analysis operated more than one charter school or campus during
                    school year 2009-2010. In our EDFacts custom data file, for these



                    1
                     In addition, in some states, each student’s district of residence LEA may be responsible
                    for evaluation and services.




                    Page 33                                            GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix II: Additional Analysis




multicampus charter school arrangements, in some states multiple
charter schools or campuses share the same LEA identifier. These
multicampus charter school arrangements make it difficult to assign LEA
status to each individual school or campus within a multicampus
arrangement. While we learned that some states equate one LEA with
one charter, we were not able to determine from the data whether or not
these multicampus arrangements operated under one or more charters.
Therefore, we could not determine whether these arrangements should
count as one or more than one LEA.




Page 34                                 GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix III: Additional Data
               Appendix III: Additional Data




               For the most part, we found that traditional public schools and charter
               schools served a similar distribution of students by disability type. More
               than 70 percent of students with disabilities in traditional public schools
               and charter schools had disabilities such as a specific learning disability,
               a speech or language impairment, or other health impairment, and both
               types of schools enrolled lower percentages of students with hearing,
               orthopedic, or visual impairments, for example (see fig. 7). However,
               when comparing the distribution of students with certain disabilities, such
               as students with an emotional disturbance or a specific learning disability,
               the percent was higher in charter schools than traditional public schools.




               Page 35                                    GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
                                          Appendix III: Additional Data




Figure 7: Distributions of Students’ Disability Types for Students with Disabilities Enrolled in Traditional Public Schools and
Charter Schools for School Year 2009-2010




                                          Note: Missing data are not shown.




                                          Page 36                                          GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix IV: Comments from the U.S.
              Appendix IV: Comments from the U.S.
              Department of Education



Department of Education




              Page 37                               GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix IV: Comments from the U.S.
Department of Education




Page 38                               GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix IV: Comments from the U.S.
Department of Education




Page 39                               GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
Appendix V: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Appendix V: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments

                  George A. Scott, (202) 512-7215, scottg@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  Sherri Doughty, Assistant Director; Sara Edmondson, Analyst-in-Charge;
Staff             Meredith Moore; Jason Palmer, Susannah Compton, Luann Moy, Ying
Acknowledgments   Long, Amy Sweet, Sheila McCoy, James Rebbe, and James Bennett also
                  made significant contributions to this report.




(131056)
                  Page 40                                GAO-12-543 Serving Special Populations
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