Researchers Report on Disparities in School Spending for Students With Disabilities

Disparities in spending on students with disabilities account for 39 percent, or $2,550, of the average per-pupil charter school funding gap, according to a new report issued today by a research team based at the U of A.

"Charter School Funding: Support for Students with Disabilities" examines the funding surrounding the education of students with disabilities in traditional and public charter schools during the 2017-18 school year in 18 major U.S. cities.

Across the 18 cities, traditional public schools received nearly $5 billion more in funding than the public charter schools in those same localities. While this study shows, on average, that the charter schools in these cities enrolled a smaller proportion of students with disabilities compared to their traditional public school counterparts (9.5 percent in charters, 13.1 percent in traditional schools), that differential only partially explains the funding gap. On average, disparities in spending on students with disabilities account for 39 percent, or $2,550, of the average per-pupil charter school funding gap, said Patrick J. Wolf, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice in the Department of Education Reform at the U of A.

The average per-pupil charter school funding gap is $6,491 in the 14 cities with complete data on both total funding and special education spending. Disparities in spending on students with disabilities account for 7 percent of the funding gap ($764) in Little Rock; 11 percent ($737) in Indianapolis; 15 percent ($775) in Tulsa; 25 percent ($4,047) in Camden, N.J.; and 25 percent ($1,156) in Detroit. Only Boston and Memphis had funding disparities entirely explained by enrollment differences for students with disabilities, Wolf said.

"The record-high funding gap between public charter and traditional public schools cannot be fully explained by different costs of serving students with disabilities," he said. "Public charter schools generally receive less funding in most cities and in most years. But if policymakers help ensure equitable funding, public charter schools can further strengthen programs for students with disabilities."

While there are findings in the report that are widely applicable, the topic of special education is complex and varies greatly across the 18 cities. In conjunction with the release of the report, researchers also published the Appendix of City Snapshots, which details special education funding systems in each of the 18 cities.

The reasons behind the differences in enrollment for students with disabilities vary city to city. Recent studies conducted in Denver, Louisiana and Newark found that students with disabilities in public charter schools were more likely than their traditional public school peers to be declassified, Wolf said.

"The identification, funding and support of students with disabilities differ enormously across the country, especially when factoring in the legal structures surrounding public charter and traditional public schools," said Cassidy Syftestad, a Doctoral Academy Fellow in the U of A Education Reform Department. "It was important for the research team to communicate key findings from this study that are relevant across communities while also acknowledging the complexity and nuance of the topic."

The report includes recommendations for how policymakers can better equalize funding between public charter and traditional schools. These shifts would better position charter schools to serve all students, especially students with disabilities, Syftestad said.

"Policymakers should prioritize providing adequate funding for students with disabilities," said Lauren Morando Rhim, Ph.D., executive director and co-founder of The Center for Learner Equity. "Fully funding state 'risk pools' would offer schools access to funds to support students who require significant supports. Furthermore, while risk pools typically exist at the state level, cohorts of charters can pool their resources at the local level to realize economies of scale so central to providing quality services to students with disabilities. At the end of the day, all schools should have the resources to support every student."

This report is the third in a series of four. The first report, "Charter School Funding: Inequity Surges in the Cities," revealed that across 18 major cities, public charter schools received 33 percent less funding compared to traditional public schools. The second report, "Making it Count: The Productivity of Public Charter Schools in Seven U.S. Cities," found charter schools more productive in math and reading than traditional schools in each of the seven cities. The next report, scheduled for release later this year, will examine nonpublic funding and expenditures of public charter and traditional public schools across the 18 cities.


Patrick J. Wolf, Distinguished Professor
Department of Education Reform

Shannon Magsam, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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