Capitol Alert

Fewer disabled students enrolled at California charter schools, teachers union study says

California’s main teachers union on Wednesday released a study that found disparities in the number of students with disabilities who attend charter versus traditional schools.

The study by the California Teachers Association, which is spending millions on legislation to restrict charter school growth, found charter schools in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Diego school districts enroll a smaller share of disabled students than traditional schools in those districts. It also found that disabled students at charter schools in those districts tend to have less severe disabilities.

“All schools, charter and public schools, should be respecting children’s civil rights to a free and appropriate education,” said Elaine Grace Regullano, one of the authors of the study. “These numbers show that there’s a real concern that that civil right may not be being respected within the charter industry.”

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, have pushed back against that argument before, saying they do not discriminate against disabled students.

“California’s charter public schools are proud to serve nearly identical numbers of students with disabilities as traditional district schools,” California Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Brittany Chord Parmley said in a statement, citing data from the Legislative Analyst’s Office that shows charter schools enroll 10 percent disabled students, compared with 12 percent overall.

Charter schools “are making greater learning gains and doing more to educate students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms alongside their general education peers than traditional public schools,” she said.

The study coincides with the Legislature’s consideration of two bills that would hand school districts additional power over charter schools.

The first proposal, Assembly Bill 1505, would allow districts to deny a charter petition if they believe the school wouldn’t serve the community’s needs or would undermine existing resources from local schools. Its partner proposal, Assembly Bill 1507, would geographically limit charters to within their local jurisdiction boundaries.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, said the legislation is necessary to hold the schools accountable and will help ensure students have the resources they need to be successful.

We shouldn’t have a segregated system,” O’Donnell said. “If we’re going to have choice, we need to ensure we have equity.”

Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said petitioners already endure a rigorous authorizing process that includes proving the community’s need for a charter.

The legislation is an expression of a well-funded, two-year campaign to talk about charters as some sort of threat to district control and that somehow we’re draining resources from districts and causing fiscal distress across the state,” Castrejón said.

The teachers union study found students with disabilities made up roughly 11 percent of charter school enrollment in the three districts studied, compared with about 14 percent of students in those districts overall.

Disabled students can be more expensive to educate because they require special resources. For example, some students might require an aide to accompany them to classes and help them understand the material.

Because schools receive funding based on the total number of students, schools with high concentrations of disabled students carry a greater cost burden, the teachers union argues. The study estimates that in traditional schools in the three districts the disparity is between $64 million and $97 million.

Charter schools’ most vocal critics say charter schools cherry-pick students who are least expensive to serve and most likely to score high on tests. But that argument paints charter schools with an overly broad brush, said John Rogers, an education policy expert at the University of California Los Angeles.

Traditional schools that operate within large districts may have better and more specialized resources for disabled students than charter schools, Rogers said. That causes some parents with disabled students to choose traditional public schools for their kids, rather than charters, and could account for part of the disparity, he said.

Districts or the coalitions of schools that pool resources to help disabled students may also be steering students to particular schools that are best equipped to fulfill their specific needs.

One of the parents featured in the study, Tracy Camp, says she took her son Kahlil out of an Oakland charter school because it wasn’t providing him with the resources he needed as a student with a disability. In 5th grade, Kahlil was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder, which Camp says makes it difficult for him to stay organized and focus in class.

When she enrolled him in the charter school for 6th grade, she said he would come home and not know what he was supposed to do for homework, which caused his grades to slip. She asked the school to provide him with an aide in class who could help him stay focused and keep track of his assignments, but the school refused, she said.

For ninth grade, she transferred Kahlil to a community college. Kahlil is now 16 and has a 3.6 GPA, Camp said. She credits the community college’s organized online system for keeping track of assignments as dramatically helping her son, and said she thinks his middle school should have done more to help him.

“He really wanted to do well,” Camp said. “It just seemed that things weren’t set up structurally to help him succeed.”

Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.