Charter schools in most states continue to enroll proportionately fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools, a new government report shows.
Across the country, disabled students represented 8.2 percent of all students enrolled during the 2009-10 year in charter schools, compared with 11.2 percent of students attending traditional public schools, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of Department of Education data.
In the previous year, 7.7 percent of students in charter schools had disabilities, compared with 11.3 percent in traditional public schools. Data covered students ages 6 to 21 in the 40 states that have charter schools.
Critics of charter schools, which are financed with taxpayer money but typically enjoy more autonomy than district public schools, have said the charters skim the best students from their communities and are less likely to enroll students with special needs.
Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the lower enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools was “not acceptable by any means.” But given the controversy over charter schools, Mr. Miller said, “my political antennae would have said that the disparity would have been greater.”
The G.A.O. report showed that in six states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, charter schools enrolled a higher proportion of disabled students than traditional public schools. And schools where more than 20 percent of the students had disabilities were more likely to be charter schools than traditional schools, in part because some charter schools cater specifically to students with special needs such as autism.
The report’s authors posited several possible reasons for the overall disparity. Some parents choose public schools that have more established programs for students with disabilities, while some charter schools do not have the resources or teaching staff to support individual students’ needs. But in some cases, the report said, school administrators tacitly discriminate by discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling.
Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary of innovation and improvement, the Department of Education office that oversees charter schools, said some district schools might be identifying students as disabled who are not, a factor that could skew the data.
But in response to some complaints of discrimination, the Education Department opened an office to help charter schools support students with disabilities.
James H. Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, described the report’s findings as “troubling.”
“There could be a number of reasons that this is happening, but it’s starting to quack like a duck,” Mr. Wendorf said. “I think we need to start looking carefully at how decisions are made by charter schools in admitting students or in releasing students. We’re concerned from some previous studies that children with disabilities are admitted but then counseled out.”
Todd Ziebarth, vice president of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, said charter schools did not always receive sufficient financing to provide special education.
“Anything we can do to better equip charter schools to be able to serve the fullest range of students possible is something we support,” he said.