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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton’s Charter School Exaggeration

Hillary Clinton says “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them.” But her campaign could not provide evidence for such a sweeping claim.

The campaign cited a study that showed charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools. But a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office said “little is known” about why that gap exists, citing several factors based only on anecdotal information — including the possibility that “fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools.”

The campaign also cited a higher rate of expulsions in Washington, D.C., charter schools compared with the district’s traditional public schools in the 2011-12 school year. However, nearly two-thirds of D.C. charter schools did not expel any students that school year. Although that, too, is only anecdotal, the Washington, D.C., experience directly contradicts Clinton’s claim that “most charter schools … don’t keep them.”

Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, made her remarks during a recent town hall meeting in South Carolina (at about the 36:40 mark of a C-Span video of the event). Roland Martin, who moderated the town hall event, asked her if she supports the expansion of charter schools. She said she has long supported the idea of charter schools, but then she noted some problems with them.

Clinton, Nov. 7: And here’s a couple of problems. Most charter schools, I don’t want to say every one, but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids. Or if they do, they don’t keep them.

The word “most” is what caught our attention. We asked the Clinton campaign for information that supports her claim charter schools don’t take and don’t keep the hardest-to-keep students. It pointed to two areas in particular: expulsion rates and enrollment of students with disabilities.

We will first look at Clinton’s claim that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids.”

Students with Disabilities

The Clinton campaign cited a Nov. 10 blog item on Education Week‘s website about an October 2015 study produced by the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, an independent nonprofit organization.

The study analyzed data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for the 2011-2012 school year. It found that charter schools serve fewer special needs students compared with traditional public schools. But it also found that the gap had narrowed over a three-year period and charter schools “serve more students in an inclusive setting [within regular classrooms] than their district counterparts.”

Education Week, Nov. 10: The NCSECS’ analysis found that 12.55 percent of traditional public school students receive special education, compared to 10.42 percent in charter schools. That gap has shrunk since the 2008-09 school year when a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that students with disabilities made up only 7.7 percent of charter school enrollment nationally, versus 11.3 percent in district schools.

We also reviewed the June 2012 GAO report mentioned in the Education Week blog item to determine the reason or reasons for the enrollment gap. But the GAO said it could not explain the gap.

The GAO said “little is known about the factors contributing” to the gap between traditional public schools and charter schools. The report said, based on anecdotal information, that several factors may be contributing to the gap. Charter schools may discourage students with disabilities from enrolling, but it also may simply be that “fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools.”

GAO, June 2012: Several factors may help explain why enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools differ, but the information is anecdotal. For example, charter schools are schools of choice, so enrollment levels may differ because fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools. In addition, some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling. Further, in certain instances, traditional public school districts play a role in the placement of students with disabilities in charter schools. In these instances, while charter schools participate in the placement process, they do not always make the final placement decisions for students with disabilities. Finally, charter schools’ resources may be constrained, making it difficult to meet the needs of students with more severe disabilities.

The report noted that federal law, which requires public charter schools to have an open admissions policy, specifically states that charter schools cannot deny admissions to students based on a disability. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is responsible for investigating claims of discrimination, and only 2 percent of all complaints concerning disabilities in 2010 were made against charter schools, according to the GAO report.

We are not saying that there aren’t charter schools that discourage or even outright deny students with disabilities from enrolling. Clearly it happens.

On Nov. 26, 2014, for example, the Education Department announced it had entered into an agreement with Harmony Public Schools, which runs 43 charter schools in Texas, after its civil rights office “uncovered admissions and enrollment policies at HPS charter schools that provide that HPS may exclude students with disciplinary problems and also require students to provide enrollment documentation that may chill or discourage the participation of students based on their or their parents’ or guardian’s citizenship or immigration status.”

“Like all public schools, Harmony’s charter schools must be open to all students, including ELL students and students with disabilities,” Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a press release.

But none of this is evidence that “most charter schools … don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” as Clinton said.

Expulsion Rates

As for expulsion rates, the Clinton campaign cited a July 2, 2013, speech by Education Secretary Arnie Duncan to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Specifically, the campaign pointed to a part of his speech where Duncan called on charter schools to reduce their rates of expulsions.

Duncan said that in Washington, D.C., where 40 percent of public school students attend charter schools, nearly all of the students expelled in the 2011-2012 school year were in charter schools. Duncan gave these numbers: 227 of the 230 expulsions, or 99 percent, were at charter schools.

“Just 11 charter schools — and that list included some high-performing charters — accounted for 75 percent of those expulsions citywide,” he said of the D.C. rate. “That’s not acceptable.”

That may not be acceptable, but it is not evidence that “most charter schools … don’t keep” the hardest-to-teach students.

There were 53 charter schools on 98 campuses in Washington, D.C., in 2011, serving more than 32,000 students, according to the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board 2011 annual report on school performance. That means the expulsions happened not at “most charter schools,” but rather they happened at “some” charter schools, since 21 percent of them were responsible for 75 percent of the expulsions.

The campaign also cited a Jan. 5, 2013, Washington Post story on the rate of expulsions in Washington, D.C., in 2011-12 — the same school year cited by Duncan. But the Post wrote: “Many charter schools — 60 out of 97 campuses — did not expel students in 2011-12.” That not only doesn’t support Clinton’s claim; it is evidence that helps to refute it.

We take no position on the merits of charter schools. But we find that Clinton’s broad claim that “most charter schools” don’t accept or don’t keep the hardest-to-teach kids is not supported by the evidence.