Charter schools teach special needs children.
I happen to know this because two of my children, both of whom have "core" autism, attended a charter school for autistic children.
Their charter was a specialized school created specifically to educate severely autistic children, but nonspecialized charter schools also teach special-ed kids. (The chart at the end of this post, comparing SPED enrollment in KIPP to SPED enrollment in urban and national schools, is from 2005.)
Which brings me to a point that seems to go missing in arguments about whether charter schools do or do not cherry-pick students: when underprivileged black and Hispanic students attend affluent white suburban schools, they are often classified as SPED.
I've seen this firsthand. I live in an affluent, white suburb, where children attend affluent, white schools. I don't say this as a criticism -- not of me, or the town, or its schools. I'm making a statement of fact.
The racial and socioeconomic segregation of my district is a direct consequence of the funding mechanism for New York schools, which is the property tax. When schools are funded by property taxes, the formula is simple: expensive houses, expensive schools.
Because houses here are expensive, no one who qualifies for free or reduced lunch would be able to attend my district's schools were it not for Section 8 housing vouchers.
Which brings me back to charter schools.
As far as I can tell, Section 8 children are the cherries charter schools are said to pick. These children have parents enterprising enough to apply for and get housing vouchers, then move out of their own neighborhoods -- all in order to send their children to suburban schools, where they will be one of a dozen or so black/Hispanic children in a sea of white faces. I don't know about you, but for me, that prospect would be disconcerting to say the least.
In short, many Section 8 parents are motivated and proactive, the same qualities charter-school parents are said to have.
So how do the black and Hispanic children of motivated low-income parents fare in suburban schools?
Not long after I realized that parents in my district were hiring an awful lot of tutors (many of them teachers in the district), I became curious about how the handful of black and Hispanic students, whose parents presumably were not hiring tutors, were doing. One day, not long after I'd begun to mull things over, I ran into a friend of mine, another mom in the district. I knew her through special ed; her daughter had learning disabilities but was quite a bit higher-functioning than my two autistic children.
At some point during our chat, I asked whether she knew anything about how underprivileged students were doing.
Her answer took me by surprise.
"I know all those kids," she said. "They're in the same class with M." M. being her daughter.
"Oh," I said. "Really."
It took me a couple of moments to regroup. I didn't know any of those kids, and nor did anyone else I knew. But my friend with the high-end SPED child knew all of them.
Because all of them were in special ed.
"So how are they doing?" I asked.
"Not well," she said.
And that was my introduction to the issue of "over-identification":
2008 government data mapped by the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University show that in most states, African-American students were nearly or greater than twice as likely as white students to be classified with emotional or intellectual disabilities.The over-identification problem came up again a couple of years later, at a board meeting, when the director of special education reported that the district had received a letter from NYSED saying they'd over-identified black/Hispanic kids as SPED. The district's solution, he said, had been to reclassify one student as white. "With the parents' permission, of course," he added.
Keeping Special Ed in Proportion by Anthony Rebora
Then there's C., who worked with Jimmy for years, and who was Chris's surrogate brother. C. is black, and was raised here in Westchester. He's one of the smartest people I know.
C. was in special ed. He and I used to joke about the geography of school buildings here in Westchester County. The SPED kids are always in the far corner of the basement, along with the black kids, who are also in special ed.
I know this is true because for years Ed and I used to sally forth to visit BOCES programs for Jimmy & Andrew. The programs were housed in public schools, and they were always in the basement, and not just the basement but the far corners of the basement. We'd get to the school, park our car, walk inside, and head downstairs. We didn't have to ask directions.
I remember one school where the kids were so far removed from the general population, not to mention all of the entry doors, that it was hard for me to imagine exactly how they were going get out in case of fire. There were windows on one of the classroom walls, but the windows were way overhead, and I didn't see any ladders. Plus I didn't know of a behavior management technique that would allow a whole class of severely disabled kids, some of them nonverbal and most of them with behavior problems, to suddenly cooperate in climbing ladders up and out of their classroom in the middle of a fire.
Inside that school, the BOCES kids remained in their subterranean domain all day long, never surfacing, not even for lunch. They were so far below-ground, they were practically hobbits.
Then there's my nephew's experience, in another state. He has learning disabilities, and he was pretty much the only white student in all of his classes for his entire public-school career.
And my friend O., back in Los Angeles: same thing. Her son had high-functioning autism; his classmates were black. When I talked to O. about it, she said: "In every school we've been in, the black kids are in special ed. It's always A. and the black kids."
My point is: in the broadest sense, charter schools serving underprivileged populations are doing the exact opposite of cherry-picking. They are choosing the students who, when they attend predominantly white schools, are in special ed. KIPP may enroll a lower proportion of SPED kids than do other urban schools (in 2005, at least), but that tells us nothing about the number of KIPP students who would be classified as SPED in a suburban district.
I have to assume that a fairly large number of KIPP students would be classified as having special needs if they went to school in the suburbs. Seems to me it's possible that urban charter schools like KIPP should really be seen as SPED schools, or perhaps as schools with a specialty in teaching SPED students:
The nation’s largest charter management organization is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP schools are emblematic of the No Excuses approach to public education, a highly standardized and widely replicated charter model that features a long school day, an extended school year, selective teacher hiring, strict behavior norms, and a focus on traditional reading and math skills. No Excuses charter schools are sometimes said to focus on relatively motivated high achievers at the expense of students who are most diffiult to teach, including limited English proficiency (LEP) and special education (SPED) students, as well as students with low baseline achievement levels. We use applicant lotteries to evaluate the impact of KIPP Academy Lynn, a KIPP school in Lynn, Massachusetts that typifies the KIPP approach. Our analysis focuses on special needs students that may be underserved. The results show average achievement gains of 0.36 standard deviations in math and 0.12 standard deviations in reading for each year spent at KIPP Lynn, with the largest gains coming from the LEP, SPED, and low-achievement groups. The average reading gains are driven almost completely by SPED and LEP students, whose reading scores rise by roughly 0.35 standard deviations for each year spent at KIPP Lynn.
Who Benefits from KIPP?
Joshua D. Angrist
MIT, NBER and IZA
Susan M. Dynarski
University of Michigan, NBER and IZA
Thomas J. Kane
Harvard University and NBER
Parag A. Pathak
MIT and NBER
Christopher R. Walters
Discussion Paper No. 5690 May 2011
Focus on Results: An Academic Impact Analysis of the Knowlege is Power Program (KIPP)
* That was the year not a single 8th-grade black or Hispanic student in my district (there were 15 in all) passed the state math and ELA tests. The state average for black/Hispanic students passing math was 34%. (2007)