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Students with Disabilities in Urban Massachusetts Charter Schools


by Christian P. Wilkens — April 19, 2011

Background/Context: In January 2010, the Massachusetts legislature decided to double the Commonwealth’s much-debated charter school expenditure cap. One claim raised during debate over the cap was that charter schools in Massachusetts did not serve their fair share of students with disabilities – a problem attracting increasing attention nationwide.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: To what extent do charter schools in urbanized areas of Massachusetts educate similar proportions of students with disabilities, and similar proportions of students with varying disability types, compared to traditional public schools?

Setting: Massachusetts; public k-12 schools

Population/Participants/Subjects: K-12 public school students in Massachusetts (2002-10 school years); dataset includes roughly 27,000 students in 63 charter schools, and nearly 1,000,000 students in 1,831 traditional public schools.

Research Design: Secondary analysis of data maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education

Data Collection and Analysis: The primary question predictor is school type – charter or non-charter (‘traditional’). Outcomes explored are: (1) total percentage of enrolled students with identified disabilities eligible for special education under Commonwealth law; and (2) range and distribution of students by disability category within schools. Overall identification (risk) rates are calculated, within schools, for all 13 disability categories in traditional public and charter schools in urbanized areas in the Commonwealth. Then, the calculated risk for overall enrollment, and for each disability category within traditional and charter schools, are compared. χ2 tests are used to determine significance.

Findings/Results: For the 2009-10 school year, the percentage of enrolled students with disabilities in urban traditional schools in Massachusetts was between 14.8%-23.9% (n = 136,393); the percentage of enrolled students with disabilities in urban charter schools was significantly lower, 7.4%-12.9% (n = 14,155). Enrollment of students with disabilities in both urban charter and traditional schools has gradually increased for the years 2002-2010, though a large gap persists and does not appear to be closing. Urban charter schools enrolled significantly lower percentages of students with Perhaps the most noticeable enrollment patterns were the significant underenrollment of students in charter schools in the categories of Specific Learning Disabilities, Emotional Disturbance, Intellectual Disability, and Developmental Delay; there were significant overenrollments in urban charter schools in two categories: Traumatic Brain Injury and Multiple Disabilities, compared to urban traditional schools (p <0.01-0.001). Additionally, urban charter schools in Massachusetts enrolled significantly fewer students who were – at the national level – much less likely to be included in regular classes, compared to their traditional peers (6.7% of all students with disabilities in urban traditional schools, v. 3.8% of students with disabilities in urban charter schools).

Conclusions/Recommendations: Uneven distribution of students with disabilities impacts both charter schools and traditional schools negatively and does not live up to the ideals of IDEA. Charter schools with few students with disabilities cannot learn how to create successful special education programs; traditional schools with disproportionately large enrollments of students with disabilities find their resources overwhelmed. It would be a lost opportunity for students and families of all kinds if charter schools remain unable to develop and deliver innovative, high-quality approaches to inclusive education for want of students with whom to practice.

INTRODUCTION


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts first authorized the creation of charter schools in the Education Reform Act of 1993; the Act included a stated preference for locating charter schools in urban areas (M.G.L. Ch.71••1-89). By 2009, urban school districts in Massachusetts had approached a 9% statutory cap on charter school expenditures. The impending halt of charter school expansion in urban areas, coupled with the federal Race to the Top grant competition, generated immense political pressure to lift the cap and allow more funds to flow to urban charter schools. After acrimonious debate, in January 2010 the legislature decided to double the charter school expenditure cap (to 18% of district funds) as part of An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap in January 2010 (Candal, 2010; U.S. Dept. of Education, 2009).


One claim raised during debate over the charter school cap was that charter schools in Massachusetts did not serve their fair share of students with disabilities – a problem attracting increasing attention nationwide (Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2009; Bifulco & Ladd, 2006; Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, & Wang, 2010; Gill, Timpane, Ross, Brewer & Booker, 2007; Hoxby & Murarka, 2009; Howe & Wellner, 2005; Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, 2009; Rhim, Ahearn, Lange, & McLaughlin, 2006; Zimmer, 2009). Legislators took this claim seriously. They crafted what they called a “smart cap” requiring new charter schools to serve “…student populations similar to those the proposed school seeks to serve” (M.G.L. Ch. 12•7[3]). While the law did not specify mechanisms for monitoring, or sanctions for charter schools that fail to meet cap goals, the approach newly and deliberately included student demography in future charter school authorization decisions.


This research note examines the public school enrollment of students with disabilities in all urbanized areas of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with preK-12 charter schools. Succinctly, the research question explored is this: To what extent do charter schools in urbanized areas of Massachusetts educate similar proportions of students with disabilities, and similar proportions of students with varying disability types, compared to traditional public schools?


Future work in this area will examine the impact of the Commonwealth’s “smart cap” over time and an examination of urban interdistrict variation of enrollment of students with disabilities, emergent from this consideration of urban charter and traditional public schools.


METHODS

 

Dataset


The dataset used for this research note includes all preK-12 public school students in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, collected and maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education from 2002-10 (the most recent complete 8-year span available); it includes information on roughly 27,000 students in 63 charter schools, and nearly 1,000,000 students in 1,831 traditional public schools.1 Students in the dataset are sorted in two ways; first, by charter and non-charter attendance; second, by geographic location. The research note then considers two distinct subsets: (1) charter school students in urbanized areas2 throughout Massachusetts; and (2) traditional school students in urbanized areas throughout Massachusetts. The primary question predictor is school type – charter or non-charter (“traditional”). The outcomes explored are: (1) total percentage of enrolled students with identified disabilities eligible for special education under Commonwealth law;3 and (2) range and distribution of students by disability category within schools.


Analysis


The enrollment of students with disabilities in traditional schools in urbanized areas throughout the Commonwealth is compared to the enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools within the same city. First, overall identification (risk) rates are calculated, within schools, for all 13 disability categories in traditional public and charter schools in urbanized areas in the Commonwealth.4 Then, the calculated risk for overall enrollment, and for each disability category within traditional and charter schools, are compared. χ2 tests are used to determine whether any differences in calculated risk between traditional and charter schools are significant.


Limitations


This research note faces a common and serious challenge encountered by all other studies of charter schools: such schools almost by definition have different missions, educational philosophies, and approaches to student instruction. However, in Massachusetts most urban charter schools have remarkably similar missions focused on similar groups of students (Merseth et al., 2009); such similarity is perhaps not surprising, given that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education is the sole authorizing body in the state, and that state law codifies minimum quotas (three per year) of charter schools located in underperforming areas (M.G.L. 603 CMR 1.05). Given such remarkable uniformity, the limitation of aggregating urban charter schools into groups may be less severe in Massachusetts than elsewhere.


FINDINGS


As shown in Table 1, for the urban traditional schools examined for the 2009-10 school year, the percentage of enrolled students with disabilities ranged from 14.8%-23.9% (n = 136,393), while the percentage of enrolled students with disabilities enrolled in urban charter schools was much lower, 7.4%-12.9% (n = 14,155).


Table 1. Enrollment of students with disabilities in urban Massachusetts traditional (n = 136,393) and charter schools (n = 14,155), 2009-10.


City

Traditional schools

 

Charter schools

   
 

Enrollment

% students with disabilities

 

Enrollment

% students with disabilities

 

χ2

df

Boston

55,713

19.6%

 

5,472

12.9%

 

124.0***

1

Cambridge

6,120

21.7%

 

605

11.2%

 

30.5***

1

Lowell

13,437

15.8%

 

1,067

12.7%

 

6.5*

1

Malden

6,386

14.8%

 

1,352

7.4%

 

49.9***

1

Somerville

4,908

22.0%

 

975

8.9%

 

75.5***

1

Springfield

25,445

23.9%

 

2,585

10.7%

 

188.6***

1

Worcester

24,384

20.4%

 

2,099

10.0%

 

111.6***

1

~ p<.10; * p<.05; ** p<.01; *** p<.001


Next, Figure 1 shows that the enrollment of students with disabilities in both urban charter and traditional schools has gradually increased for the past eight years. Charter schools in urban areas increased their enrollment of students with disabilities from 8.7% to 11.2% (2002-03 to 2009-10), while traditional urban public schools have seen similar enrollment increases, from 18.4% to 20.1% in the same period. The enrollment gap of students with disabilities in urban traditional and charter schools, therefore, appears to be 8.9%.


Figure 1. Enrollment of students with disabilities in urban Massachusetts traditional (n = 136,393-147,814) and charter schools (n = 9,188-14,155), 2002-10.


[39_16389.htm_g/00002.jpg]

Looking at the enrollment of students by different disability types, detailed in Table 2, clear differences emerged between the urban traditional and charter schools.


Table 2. Student identification, by disability category, in urban Massachusetts traditional (n = 136,393) and charter schools (n = 14,155), 2009-10.†


 

Urban traditional schools

 

Urban charter schools

   

Eligibility category

n

% enrollment

 

n

% enrollment

 

Gap

χ2

All

27,434

20.1%

 

1,583

11.2%

 

8.9%

559.9***

Specific Learning Disability

9,353

6.9%

 

582

4.1%

 

2.7%

155.6***

Speech / Language Impairment

4,126

3.0%

 

360

2.5%

 

0.5%

10.9***

Emotional Disturbance

3,590

2.6%

 

112

0.8%

 

1.8%

182.2***

Intellectual Disability

3,226

2.4%

 

99

0.7%

 

1.7%

166.1***

Developmental Delay

3,033

2.2%

 

78

0.6%

 

1.7%

178.1***

Autism

1,430

1.0%

 

29

0.2%

 

0.8%

96.1***

Other Health Impairment

1,038

0.8%

 

117

0.8%

 

-0.1%

0.8

Multiple Disabilities

554

0.4%

 

103

0.7%

 

-0.3%

36.0***

Physical / Orthopedic Impairment

327

0.2%

 

26

0.2%

 

0.1%

1.9

Traumatic Brain Injury

320

0.2%

 

66

0.5%

 

-0.2%

32.4***

Deafness / Hearing Impairment

277

0.2%

 

2

0.0%

 

0.2%

24.9***

Blindness / Vision Impairment

103

0.1%

 

5

0.0%

 

0.0%

3.03*

Deafblindness

57

0.0%

 

1

0.0%

 

0.0%

4.1**

†Degrees of freedom (df) for category "All" is 12; all other categories df = 1.

~ p<.10; * p<.05; ** p<.01; *** p<.001


No significant differences were found across school types in the enrollment of students in the categories of Other Health Impairment, and Physical/Orthopedic Impairment. Urban traditional schools demonstrated significantly higher enrollment percentages of students in eight (of thirteen) disability categories compared to urban charter schools.5


Perhaps the most noticeable enrollment pattern was the significant under-enrollment of students in charter schools in the categories of Specific Learning Disabilities (2.7%), Emotional Disturbance (0.8%), Intellectual Disability (0.7%), and Developmental Delay (0.6%).6  Also notable was the significant over-enrollment in urban charter schools in two categories: Traumatic Brain Injury (0.5%) and Multiple Disabilities (0.3%).


Additionally, Table 3 reveals that urban charter schools in Massachusetts have enrolled significantly fewer students who were – at the national level – much less likely to be included in regular classes, compared to their traditional peers (Albrecht, Seelman, & Bury, 2003; Florian & McLaughlin, 2008). Specifically, enrollment of students with intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, autism, deaf-blindness, and traumatic brain injury comprised 6.7% of all students with disabilities in urban traditional schools, while comparable enrollment in charter schools was significantly lower – just 3.8% of all students with disabilities.


Table 3. Percent of students with low-inclusion disabilities (intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, deafblindness, multiple disabilities, autism, or traumatic brain injury) in urban Massachusetts traditional (n = 136,393) and charter schools (n = 14,155), 2009-10.


 

Urban traditional schools

 

Urban charter schools

   

 

n

% enrollment

 

n

% enrollment

 

Gap

χ2

Low-inclusion disabilities

9,177

6.7%

 

410

2.9%

 

3.8%

308.9***

Notes. Students with disabilities placed outside traditional schools excluded from analysis. Disability categories chosen demonstrate inclusion rates more than one standard deviation below the mean nationally (NCES 2005, Table 49, Table 2-2). 'Substantially separate' defined by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: "IEP services are provided outside the general education classroom more than 60% of the time."

~ p<.10; * p<.05; ** p<.01; *** p<.001


Finally, Figure 2 shows that the under-enrollment of students with intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, autism, deaf-blindness, and traumatic brain injury in urban charter schools has persisted over time.


Figure 2. % Enrollment of students with low-inclusion disabilities in urban Massachusetts traditional (n = 136,277-147,814) and charter (n = 8,521-14,155) schools, 2002-10.


 [39_16389.htm_g/00004.jpg]


DISCUSSION


Clear differences exist between urban traditional and charter schools in the enrollment of students with disabilities in Massachusetts. Overall, urban charter schools enrolled significantly lower total percentages of students with disabilities, compared to their traditional counterparts (7.4-12.9% v. 14.8-23.9%, respectively); this enrollment gap has persisted for at least the past eight years. Urban charter schools in Massachusetts also demonstrate significantly lower enrollment percentages, compared to their traditional counterparts, of students with disabilities who are the least likely to have regular classroom access, such as students with intellectual disability, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, autism, deaf-blindness, and traumatic brain injury (2.9% v. 6.7%, respectively).


It is difficult to see how persistently low enrollment of students with disabilities in urban Massachusetts charter schools is consistent with the stated preference of IDEA for inclusive education (Ascher & Wamba, 2005). If students with disabilities are concentrated together, in one kind of school (and not in another), into what will they be included? Uneven distribution of students with disabilities impacts both charter schools and traditional schools negatively (Fiore, Harwell, Blackorby, & Finnegan, 2000; Wells, 2002). Schools that educate all kinds of students, and who work to include them all in the general curriculum, learn a great deal as organizations about sound educational practice (Argyris & Schon, 1978; O’Day, in Fuhrman & Elmore, 2004; Rose & Meyer, 2006). Such schools develop their human capital – their leadership, their teachers, and their staff – in ways that isolated schools cannot. Charter schools that fail to enroll large numbers of students with disabilities cannot learn how to create successful special education programs, nor will they invest in a teaching force capable of delivering high-quality instruction to students with a range of educational needs. Traditional schools that face large and growing percentages of students with incredibly diverse needs may find themselves unable to provide the kinds of educational supports that students need.


It would be a lost opportunity for students and families of all kinds if charter schools are unable to develop the ability to deliver innovative, high-quality approaches to inclusive education for want of students with whom to practice. Clearly, if the gradual increases in enrollment of students with disabilities seen in Figure 1 continue for any length of time in the future, both types of schools will need to increase their capacity to deliver high-level inclusive education.


Notes


1. Publicly available at: http://www.doe.mass.edu/InfoServices/data/sims/

2. For the purposes of this analysis, the definition of an “urbanized area” is from the U.S. Census Bureau, and includes any city or town with a total population of greater than 50,000 residents, and a population density equal or greater than 1,000 persons per square mile.

3. The terminology used by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to describe disability categories does not always match the federal terminology, and may be somewhat unfamiliar to some researchers. This research note uses the federal category to avoid reader confusion.

4. Risk indicates the proportion of students at a given level (school, district, state, etc.) who have an identified disability. For example, if ten students at hypothetical School A with a total enrollment of 100 are identified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD), the calculated “risk” of being identified as SLD at that school is 10/100 = 0.1.

5. Boston Public Schools operates a school for Deaf, hearing impaired, and deafblind students – the Horace Mann School for the Deaf; though this school likely explains much of the under-enrollment of Deaf, hearing impaired, and deafblind students in urban charter schools, the existence of Horace Mann changes nothing with respect to charter schools’ obligations under IDEA or Commonwealth law.

6. Notably, enrollment of students with disabilities can vary significantly across traditional urban districts. Here, enrollment percentages for urban charter schools were compared to enrollment of students within the corresponding traditional district; χ2 calculations were based on the null hypothesis that enrollment of students with disabilities between traditional and charter schools within the same city is random.


References


Abdulkadiroglu, A., Angrist, J., Cohodes, S., Dynarski, S., Fullerton, J., Kane, T., & Pathak, P. (2009). Informing the debate: Comparing Boston's charter, pilot and traditional schools. Boston, MA: The Boston Foundation. Retrieved November 24, 2010 from http://hdl.handle.net/10244/726


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Ascher, C., & Wamba, N. (2005). An examination of charter school equity. In School Choice and Diversity: What the Evidence Says. Scott, J. (Ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.


Bifulco, R., & Ladd, H. (2006). The impacts of charter schools on student achievement: Evidence from North Carolina. Education Finance and Policy. 1(1), 50-90.


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Rhim, M., Ahearn, E., Lange, C., & McLaughlin, M. (2006). Project intersect: Studying special education in charter schools. Research Report #4: Charter Schools’ Special Education Infrastructures. College Park, MD: University of Maryland Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth.


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Wells, A., (Ed.). (2002). Where charter school policy fails: The problems of accountability and equity. New York: Teachers College Press.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 19, 2011
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16389, Date Accessed: 9/2/2014 5:07:37 AM

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About the Author
  • Christian Wilkens
    The College at Brockport, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTIAN WILKENS is Assistant Professor in the Department of Education and Human Development at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. His research interests include choice and students with disabilities, and homeschooling. Recent publications: Wilkens, C. (2011). “Students with Disabilities in Urban Massachusetts Charter Schools: Access to Regular Classrooms.” Disability Studies Quarterly. Forthcoming. Wilkens, C. (2009). “Elementary School Placements of African American Students Who Are Profoundly Deaf.” Journal of Disability Policy Studies. 19(5):1-7. Wilkens, C., & Hehir, T. (2008). “Deaf Education and Bridging Social Capital: A Theoretical Approach.” American Annals of the Deaf. 153(2): 276-284.
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