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No Choice: Students With Disabilities and Florida's Charter Schools

Background

According to state law, every student is supposed to have an equal shot at enrollment – including students with disabilities. But students with severe disabilities are not appearing in most charter school classrooms.

StateImpact Florida and the Miami Herald gathered and analyzed data on K-12 students with disabilities from 14 school districts representing more than three-quarters of Florida’s total charter enrollment.

The analysis focused on students in the state’s two most severe disability categories, which includes some students with autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy. It shows:

•             More than 86 percent of the charter schools do not serve a single child with a severe disability – compared to more than half of district schools which do.

•             In Duval County, just one student enrolled in a charter school has a severe disability. Duval district schools educate more than 1,000 severely-disabled students.

•             There’s not a single child with a severe disability in charter schools in Pinellas County, the nation’s 24th-largest school district.

•             The majority of charter school students with severe disabilities are concentrated in a handful of schools that specialize in those disabilities, often autism.

Charter school advocates say they recognize the issue and that more schools that specialize in students with disabilities are opening.District schools work in a similar way, with schools specializing in a particular disability.

Not every school is expected to serve every student that walks in the door, education officials said.

But Thomas Hehir, a Harvard University professor who helped rewrite the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said the system is excluding students with disabilities.

“That is unfortunately what we find in altogether too many places,” Hehir said. “I think that there is a disincentive to enroll these kids because they cost more money to educate.”

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