Support Equal Representation of Special Needs Students in Charter Schools

Target: U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan

Goal: Equal representation of special needs students between public and charter schools

Recent reports, including one from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), find that charter schools under-enroll special education students when compared to public schools. While under-enrollment patterns vary by grade level and location, the reports still show that the largest subset of charter schools in its sample — K-8 and elementary schools — systematically under-enroll special needs students. This supports the main critique of charter schools: they enforce a two-tiered education system. To ignore this problem is to ignore potential discrimination against special needs students. Tell the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that charter schools meet the federal enrollment standard for special needs students.

The GAO report, commissioned by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), found that 11 percent of students enrolled in public schools during the 2009-10 school year were special needs students, compared with 8 percent of students in charter schools. Some have attempted to explain away these findings by claiming that conventional elementary schools over-identify children as having special needs or that they otherwise fail to provide early interventions that would help avoid special needs identifications. There is no evidence for this, though. Those who counter the under-enrollment claim also tend to cite reports that are limited in scope and that rely on a singular urban context, such as New York, for their data.

Charter schools were originated with the purpose of giving students stuck in failing public schools an alternative that is not determined by where they live. While charter schools receive public funding, they can also be private and for-profit. This has lead to criticism that says these schools produce an education system with different resources that caters to different populations. Because of the potential for discrimination in private and for-profit schools, the U.S. Department of Education must ensure that special needs students are not under-represented in charter schools. Tell Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to ensure special needs representation in charter schools.


Dear Secretary Arne Duncan,

I am writing this letter to urge the Department of Education to ensure special needs students are represented in American charter schools. Today only 23 percent of charter schools have a representation of special needs students comparable to public schools with high concentrations of students with disabilities. Reports have also found that the under-representation is indeed systematic.

This lends support to a criticism charter schools face: their implementation creates a two-tiered education system. What’s more, charter schools have a higher potential for discriminatory enrollment because they can be private or for-profit. The U.S. Department of Education has an obligation to do all within its power to ensure equal or near equal representation in American schools. This extends to students with special needs as well. I urge you to make sure charter schools that consistently under-represent students with disabilities face compliance reports and other means to make sure they do not discriminate against special needs students.


[Your Name Here]

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