Dec 17

The Center Releases Report on Enrollment of Students with Disabilities in Colorado Charter Schools

The Center for Learner Equity (the Center) has released a new report examining trends related to enrollment of students with disabilities in Colorado charter schools. The report, which was commissioned by the Schools of Choice Unit at the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), involved an analysis of enrollment data provided by CDE, a summary of key state and school policies and practices, a review of charter schools’ websites, and interviews and feedback from key stakeholders. A detailed methodology is provided in the appendix. Through this report, the Center documented enrollment trends across the state and by authorizing entity, surfaced contributing factors, and identified opportunities for key stakeholders to make short- and long-term changes that can improve students with disabilities’ ability to access and thrive in charter schools.

High-Level Findings

  • Enrollment of students with disabilities has continued to increase in both traditional and charter public schools. However, the 2019-2020 average enrollment rate of students with disabilities in Colorado charter schools (7.4%) is four points lower than the average enrollment rate of students with disabilities in traditional public schools (11.4%) in districts that have charter schools. 
  • When compared to national charter school trend data, on average, the Colorado charter sector enrolls the smallest proportion of students with disabilities.
  • When examined by authorizing entity, the average enrollment of students with disabilities varies across the state, with enrollment rates ranging from 0% to 16%. 
  • Inadequate funding is an overarching challenge for public schools in Colorado and scarcity of resources was identified as influencing practice related to educating students with disabilities in both traditional and charter public schools. 
  • Broadly speaking, Colorado’s education policy framework embraces choice. However, there is also a long history of local control, which has resulted in varying levels of oversight and has caused some authorizers to perceive limitations to their ability to enforce charter contract compliance.
  • State charter law dictates that authorizers serve as the local education agency for charter schools for purposes of provision of a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities in accordance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This governance structure requires authorizers and charters to share responsibility and decision-making related to educating students with disabilities and how this is operationalized varies.
  • An examination of Colorado charter school websites revealed mixed and at-times confusing language regarding educating students with disabilities. As public schools, charter schools are required to educate students with disabilities, but a variety of factors were identified (e.g., governance structure, funding, curriculum, and specialized programming) as contributing to some families’ perceptions that charter schools are not an option for their children. 
  • Special education service models, such as the “insurance” model, require charter schools to negotiate with authorizers regarding funding and provision of special education and related services, which can introduce challenges related to transparency and alignment of costs relative to services provided.
  • The state-developed prescreening process, through which charter schools and districts review a student’s IEP prior to enrollment and often outside of the formal IEP meeting setting, may be unintentionally limiting students with disabilities’ access to charter schools. 

Looking Forward

Despite these challenges, key entities in Colorado are well-positioned and have demonstrated a commitment to driving change that can ensure students with disabilities access and succeed in charter schools across the state. Our analysis highlighted four key priorities that we propose could improve access for and overall enrollment of students with disabilities in Colorado charter schools. The state, authorizers, and districts must address problematic policies and practices related to the enrollment of students with disabilities and the state and authorizers should increase accountability for overall enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools. Improvement will also require additional analyses of more robust types of data (e.g., enrollment by disability type, outcomes, and mobility) and evaluation of charter schools’ special education program design. Finally, the state should commit to ongoing capacity building and support for stakeholders related to ensuring equitable access to choice and educating students with disabilities.