Why Do Charters Have Fewer Special Ed Kids Than Traditional Schools?

The Newark Council Education Committee met last night with group of stakeholders, including Theresa Adubato of the Robert Treat Academy, Junius Williams of the Abbott Leadership Institute, ELC founder Paul Tractenberg, and School Board Chair Shavar Jeffries. According to the Star-Ledger, the debate was noteworthy for its lack of contention, especially in light of recent fireworks. The meeting was chaired by South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka, who moonlights as Principal of Newark Central High School.

The conversation veered toward the disparity between the number of special needs kids in charter schools (like Robert Treat) and the number of special needs kids in traditional public schools. Here’s Michael Pallante, who is the former principal of Camden Street School, a district K-4 school. He's now is at Robert Treat:
"Camden housed very large special needs populations," Pallante said, adding that he did not believe it should be shut down. He added that often times students in district schools are mislabeled as "special needs" rather than brought up to speed with their fellow students.

Robert Treat, he said, eliminated layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and allowed him to work with at-risk students to avoid labeling them as special needs.

"The question shouldn't be why do charter schools have so few special needs (students) but why do other schools have so many?" he said.
Good question.

For a bit of context I looked at Principal Baraka’s school, Central High. Central High has 861 kids (according to most recent DOE data) in grades 9-12. A full 21.5% of its kids are classified for disabilities. Across the country the average is about 10%. NJ runs about 16%.

How do the kids do? Maybe Councilman Baraka should stick to his day job. A whopping 59.3% of graduates are unable to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) , an 8th grade level test, and have to resort to the Alternative High School Assessment. Among its non-disabled population, 30.2% pass the HSPA in both subjects.

Do one in five kids in Central really have disabilities? Or is Pallante right and we’re overclassifying kids?

A thought experiment. I took ten districts in NJ with DFG’s (a measure of socio-economics) of either I or J, a sampling of our wealthiest communities: Ramapo, Mahwah, Saddle River, Moorestown, Cherry Hill, Glen Ridge, Millburn, West Essex, Montogomery, and Bernards. I stuck to districts with high schools. The average rate of classification for special education for high schoolers was 11.69%.

Then I took eight districts in NJ with DFG’s of A: Buena Regional, Camden, Bridgeton, Newark, New Brunswick, Asbury Park, Keansburg, and Elizabeth. The average rate of classificiation for high schoolers was 22.15%.

Now one can wax philosophical on the question of whether poverty itself is a disability. I think it is. But there’s a difference between needing extra resources because of deprivation and needing to be classified as a special education student. The former is just the cost of doing business in a diverse state. In the latter case, for a kid who is cognitively unimpaired but maybe difficult to manage, the classification serves administrators (who have more cash for the bottom line) but straitjackets the child into a set of unnecessarily lowered expectations.

Pallante's point is that there's added incentives for traditional public schools to classify students as disabled (at least in neighborhoods like Newark's Central Ward) and added incentives for autonomous public schools (charters) to not classify students as disabled.

Maybe this is a case where traditional public schools can truly learn from experimental charters.

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