Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools: Impact and Classification

New Findings, School Reform, October 2016

Special edu­ca­tion and English Language Learners expe­ri­ence large achieve­ment gaps and account for a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of school spend­ing. Whether and how well char­ter schools serve spe­cial needs stu­dents remains a cen­tral con­tro­versy in the char­ter school debate. The author uses admis­sions lot­ter­ies from nearly every char­ter school in Boston to esti­mate the effects of char­ter enroll­ment on spe­cial needs stu­dents’ clas­si­fi­ca­tion and achieve­ment. Charter schools remove spe­cial needs clas­si­fi­ca­tions and move spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents into more inclu­sive class­rooms at a rate over two times higher than tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. Despite this reduc­tion in spe­cial needs ser­vices, char­ters increase spe­cial needs stu­dents’ test scores, like­li­hood of meet­ing a high school grad­u­a­tion require­ment, and like­li­hood of earn­ing a state merit schol­ar­ship. Charters ben­e­fit even the most dis­ad­van­taged spe­cial needs stu­dents: those with the low­est test scores and those who receive the most ser­vices at the time of lot­tery. Non-experimental evi­dence sug­gests that the clas­si­fi­ca­tion removal explains at most 26 per­cent of the achieve­ment gains for spe­cial needs stu­dents and has no detri­men­tal effect. The results show that spe­cial needs stu­dents can achieve gains with­out the tra­di­tional set of spe­cial needs ser­vices in the char­ter environment.