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

New Findings, School Reform, December 2015

The ques­tion of whether and how well char­ter schools serve spe­cial edu­ca­tion and English Language Learners remains one of most con­tro­ver­sial in the char­ter school debate. This paper uses admis­sions lot­ter­ies to esti­mate the effects of Boston’s char­ter school enroll­ment on stu­dent achieve­ment and clas­si­fi­ca­tion for spe­cial needs stu­dents. Charter atten­dance boosts achieve­ment sim­i­larly for spe­cial needs and non-special needs stu­dents. Charters also increase the like­li­hood that spe­cial needs stu­dents meet high school grad­u­a­tion require­ments and earn a state merit schol­ar­ship. Even the most dis­ad­van­taged spe­cial needs stu­dents ben­e­fit from char­ter atten­dance. Charter schools reduce the like­li­hood of spe­cial needs clas­si­fi­ca­tions and move spe­cial edu­ca­tion stu­dents into more inclu­sive class­rooms at a sub­stan­tially higher rate than do tra­di­tional pub­lic schools. Differences in char­ter clas­si­fi­ca­tion prac­tices are largely unre­lated to char­ter gains, sug­gest­ing that spe­cial needs clas­si­fi­ca­tion is not essen­tial for stu­dents with spe­cial needs to make progress.