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Public Charter Schools are serving more students with disabilities than ever before

• Sam Duell

According to a just published report by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS), public charter schools are serving more students with disabilities than ever before. And while there’s still a gap between the percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in traditional public schools and public charter schools, that gap decreased by almost half over five years (from 3.6 percent in 2009 to 1.84 percent in 2014).

There’s more fascinating news: public charter schools are successfully expanding access to general education curriculum.

For decades, advocates have been working tirelessly for opportunities for students with disabilities to be educated in traditional, general education classrooms. In fact, the directive to accommodate students in the “least restrictive environment” is one of the main pillars of the landmark Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  As the NCSECS authors note, “the general education classroom… maximizes students’ access to the general education curriculum alongside their peers without disabilities.”

According to the report, 84 percent of students with disabilities are being educated in general education classrooms in public charter schools, compared to 68 percent in traditional public schools. This should be terrific news for special education advocates.  It may also indicate that traditional public schools have something to learn from public charter schools when it comes to inclusion of students with disabilities.

The report describes the data trends but it does not reveal the reasons for trends. So here are some questions for potential further investigation.

  • Why are more students with disabilities attending public charter schools? Does the reason have more to do with families or with public charter schools? Are more families with student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) simply looking for alternative public-school options like charters? Or are public charter schools more effectively finding previously unidentified students with disabilities, as required by federal law?
  • Why are so many more students with disabilities in public charter schools included in the general education classroom? As mentioned, federal law clearly mandates that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment. It would seem that public charter schools are following this part of the law effectively, but does this have more to do with the types of disability charters most often serve? Or are they doing a better job of integrating all students in the general education classroom?
  • Why are independent local education agency (LEA) charters serving more students with disabilities than dependent charters? As the NCSECS report notes, about 54 percent of charters serve as independent local education agencies. About 11.5 percent of students who attend independent charters have IEPs, while 9.74 percent of students who attend dependent charters have IEPs. What role does the central office of the school district play in serving dependent charter school students? Who has more influence over placement in dependent charter schools, the charter or the central office?
  • While this national data is promising, how does it relate to trends in individual states? When it comes to special education in public charter schools, which states can claim the lead in policy and in practice? Which states need improvement?

 This NCSECS report prompts many more questions. We should take advantage of this analysis for healthy reflection. If nothing else, it serves as a basic reminder that charter schools are public schools, that they do in fact serve students with disabilities, and that while there is room for improvement, charters are adapting over time.

For selected key findings from the report, see the bullet points and tables below.

Selected findings from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) report, “Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: A Secondary Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection” (Rhim & Kothari, 2018).

  • Enrollment
    • Enrollment of students with disabilities slightly decreased in traditional public schools (12.55% to 12.46%) and slightly increased in charter schools (10.42% to 10.62%) from 2012 to 2014.
    • Charter schools that operate as their own local education agency (LEA) enroll more students with disabilities than charter schools that operate as part of an LEA, 11.5% vs. 9.74% respectively.
  • Enrollment by Disability Type
    • Charter schools reported higher percentages of students with specific learning disabilities, autism and emotional disturbances than traditional public schools.
    • Charter schools reported lower percentages of students with designated developmental delays and intellectual impairments than traditional public schools.


Enrollment by Disability Type (2013 – 2014)
% of Enrolled Students with Disabilities Traditional Public Schools Charter Schools
Specific Learning Disability 45.98% 49.49%
Autism 6.53% 7.2%
Emotional Disturbance 4.1% 5.06%
Developmental Delays 2.07% 0.92%
Intellectual Impairments 5.89% 3.64%
Other Designation Types 35.43% 33.69%


  • Placement
    • Students with disabilities who attend charter schools are more likely to have access to the general education classroom.


Placement (2013 – 2014)
% of School Day Included in the General Education Classroom Traditional Public Schools Charter Schools
Greater than 80% 68.09% 84.27%
Between 40% and 79% 18.53% 8.67%
Less than 40% 11.78% 5.08%


About the author

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.