Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Charter, public schools differ in special needs students

By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service

LANSING – Charter schools operated by for-profit corporations serve significantly fewer special needs children than local public schools, a Western Michigan University study found.

“Research has shown that charter schools have less capacity for special education children. Therefore, parents tended to chose public schools over charter schools,” said WMU professor Gary Miron.

Researchers examined Individualized Education Program (IEP) enrollment trends for charters operated by education management organizations and compared them to local public school districts across the state.

IEPs are annual plans developed by parents, teachers and other school employees based on each student’s needs.

“Studies show that students with IEPs in charter schools tended to have mild disabilities in nature, mostly speech and language impediments, which are more common in elementary grades, while nearly all students with moderate or severe disabilities such as autism are served by traditional public schools,” Miron said.

Michigan has 232 charters that educate nearly 6 percent of the state’s K-12 students. For-profit companies operate 191 of them.

Charters or “public academies” are quasi-public schools funded by state aid. They cannot charge tuition.

Penny Davis, a researcher for Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools, said her center’s research shows that “many families send their children to charters because they won’t be labeled as special needs.

“Our data indicates that families have chosen charter schools as alternatives to the traditional education process in order to avoid having their children being labeled as ‘special needs,’” Davis said.

A 2008 Department of Education report found that charters serve a higher percentage of students through alternative education programs, particularly at the high school level, than public schools.

Charters in Traverse City, Eaton Rapids and Spring Lake are among those with fewer IEP students than local districts, according to WMU’s analysis of 2006-2007 enrollments. Charters in Highland Park and Dearborn Heights are among those with more IEP students that local districts.

For example, for-profit Advance Educational Services Inc. of Lansing operates charters in Traverse City, Eaton Rapids and two in Spring Lake, all of which the study classifies as having a smaller percentage of IEP students than local districts.

“A small group of charter schools focus on special needs children. As a result those charter schools are ‘highly segregative’ in that regard,” Miron said. “However, some special education experts fear this may be a poor approach to IEP education.”

For example, the ACE Academy, which operates two charters in Highland Park, is designed to serve students who have disengaged from the learning process of traditional school settings.

The same company operates two charters in Dearborn Heights, both serving high-risk students.

Forty-two percent of students at these four charters have IEPs, 26 percent more than their home districts, the study said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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