Dee Alpert, a reader interested in charter schools, noticed the debate over their handling of students with learning disabilities. Some people say charter schools reject students with learning disabilities. Other say that can’t be true because charters are public schools that must accept everyone they have room for.

Alpert asked me how many special education students were in the 99 schools in 20 states and the District that were part of KIPP, the nation’s most successful charter school network and the subject of my 2009 book, “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

I asked KIPP national spokesman Steve Mancini, who sent me this message. It is a good summary of what KIPP does with special ed, and will help guide our future arguments about this issue.

Mancini said:

According to the 2010 Mathematica report on KIPP, “KIPP schools in the study were more likely to enroll students eligible for free and reduced price lunch, but less likely to enroll students enrolled in special education or students of limited English proficiency.”

KIPP keeps track of our percentage of special ed students, and makes this information public in the annual Report Card. According to the 2009 Report Card, 8 percent of KIPP students nationwide receive special education service, 95 percent of our students are African-American or Latino, and 84 percent are eligible for free or reduced price meals.

Several KIPP schools across the country are showing success in educating special education students. For example, KIPP Lynn in Massachusetts has a special education student population of about 16 percent, which is higher than the average for Lynn Public Schools. In a 2010 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Score gains [at KIPP Lynn] are largest for special education students and those with limited English proficiency.”

If any of your readers have further questions about special education or student demographics, please encourage them to reach out to me at

I invited Alpert add a response. Here it is:

a.  I don't think a conversation re data on KIPP and students with disabilities — i.e., how many are enrolled in each KIPP charter; how kids with disabilities in each KIPP charter fare in terms of scores, graduation/dropout and out-transfer ("discharge") numbers — is a good place to field a "less is more" response.  Every state ed. dept. in the country requires highly detailed yearly reports on such kids from all districts, charters and schools.  The paucity of information Steve gives makes me less — rather than more — comfortable.  States, districts and schools which don't submit these reports run the risk of having their federal special ed. money cut off.  In fact, submission of timely, accurate and complete data re kids with disabilities sometimes seems to be the only thing US DOE's Office of Special Education Programs really cares about.  Ergo, the data to which I refer definitely exists.  Doesn't KIPP HQ collect it?  Where is it?  Or, "where's the beef?"
b.  Similarly, the NBER report which Steve quotes contains — far as I can tell — one generalized statement re the scores for KIPP kids with "special education students and those with limited English proficiency."  If 8% of KIPP kids "nationwide receive special education service," then surely there are enough such KIPP kids overall to work up and make public some real hard numbers — if not on a per-charter basis, then certainly on a state and national basis.  Similarly, the carefully-worded assertion that "Several KIPP schools across the country are showing success in educating special education students" raises a real red flag.  If "several" KIPP schools are doing well by these kids, should one presume that "most" are not?  These kids' scores and outcomes matter:  not just those in "several" of KIPP's numerous schools.
There are two different groups of "special education students."  Those classified under IDEA get IEPs mandating special education programs and services, some part of which are paid for with federal funds.  Those classified under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act typically just receive general education modifications and accommodations, i.e., extended time, preferential seating, and the like and don't bring in federal IDEA funds.  In practice, Section 504 is what some call "special ed. lite."  Generally, those "only" classified under Section 504 are considered to be much less disabled than those who receive IDEA programs and services.  504 children's scores are not reported in state, district,  and school NCLB Report Cards in the "students with disabilities" categories. Thus, comparing scores for the KIPP mega-group of kids who receive IDEA special education programs plus KIPP kids who just receive Section 504 mods. and accoms. on the one hand solely with the group of public schools' students classified as disabled under IDEA on the other is a real apples-to-oranges comparison. 
c.  KIPP Lynn apparently does a bang up job with these kids — and a lot of them.  Hooray for KIPP Lynn!  I understood that one reason for supporting the charter school movement was because charters were to be free to experiment with different kinds of programs, structures, methodologies and the like — and that public school systems were supposed to be able to learn from (and hopefully emulate) charters' successes.  I haven't read about KIPP disseminating information re how to successfully educate kids with disabilities using the KIPP Lynn model.  Are there plans to do this ... and if so, where can I sign up on the list of folks who will be notified when the publication is available? 
Finally — and I want to be blunt here — there are recurrent suggestions (which tend to come from the anti-charter crowd) that charters push out many students when it looks like they won't do well on states' mandated tests.  I have no idea if this is true or not.  I had emailed my query hoping to put at least part of this controversy to bed — at least as far as KIPP and its kids with disabilities is concerned.   It would seem that my hope was premature.

It is my assumption, based on no research, that parents whose children are enrolled in special education in regular schools are going to be more reluctant to apply to charter schools — public schools that are independent of many school district regulations — than parents whose children do not have learning disabilities. It often takes much time and patience to arrange the individualized education program that works best for your special education child. A regular school parent who has completed that process will think twice about starting it all over again in a charter school, no matter what its reputation.