Study: Some D.C. Public Charters Still Discourage Special-Ed Pupils' Enrollment

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 27, 2009

Some D.C. public charter schools continue selective admissions practices that discourage special-needs students from enrolling, and students citywide with possible disabilities still face delays in special education evaluations, a federal court monitor said this week.

"Charter schools . . . generally have not enrolled students with significant disabilities who required extensive hours of special services or education," the monitor, Amy Totenberg, wrote in a report prepared for a court hearing yesterday.

The report casts a somewhat harsh light on a fast-growing sector of public education in the city. Charter schools, which receive public funding but are independently operated, have siphoned many students from the city's troubled public school system and have posted somewhat higher test scores than regular schools in recent years.

But Totenberg said some charter schools explicitly limit the number of hours of special education they will provide and counsel parents to enroll their children at regular public schools or at private or other public charter schools that focus on students with disabilities. D.C. law prohibits charter schools from asking about learning disabilities or emotional problems during the admission process.

"There are a number of challenges for us to correct," said Josephine Baker, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. She said the number of schools with special education problems is small and getting smaller.

D.C. schools are under a federal court order from the late 1990s to improve the timeliness of their response to special-needs children. About 23 percent of the 46,000 students in the D.C. public school system receive special education services. Many receive services from private schools at taxpayer expense.

By contrast, in the 2007-08 school year, 12 percent of the 21,800 students in D.C. public charter schools -- which are also subject to the court order -- received special education services.

Charter school leaders project enrollment of about 28,000 students in the next school year, up from about 25,000 in the year that just ended. But many charter schools are small and ill-equipped to handle the additional services special-needs students require.

Charter school advocates say it is likely that some students in regular public schools are placed in special education because overworked teachers aren't able to attend to their needs.

Charter schools "tend to be much smaller and more personalized," said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a charter school advocacy organization. "So many of the students are handled in the course of things" without special services, he said.

At yesterday's hearing in U.S. District Court, Totenberg said schools are "still no good with timely evaluations of students" across all sectors of city education -- public, charter and private.

But D.C. education officials said they have made significant progress in reducing a backlog of evaluation requests.

"Things are not falling through the cracks the way they used to," said Richard Nyankori, the city's deputy chancellor for special education. Before the D.C. school system was reorganized in 2007, 20 percent of requests for student evaluations were resolved within 90 days. Nyankori said the rate is now 56 percent, and he predicted it would reach 90 percent by next year.

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