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Special needs students stay in traditional public schools as others leave

Other students are increasingly seeking out alternative options, causing the cost of educating special needs students to fall disproportionately on regular public schools.

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Most charter, parochial and magnet schools serve children with disabilities, but they are often milder disabilities, leaving the brunt of students with significant needs in traditional district schools.

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Special needs enrollment in Philadelphia district schools and charters is roughly 14 percent, but about half the district's pupils with special needs have severe disabilities compared to about a third for charters.

Charter proponents say schools do not turn away kids with disabilities or ask if an applicant has disabilities, which is illegal, and note that in six states — Nevada, Wyoming, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania — charters serve more pupils with special needs than local districts.

As districts increasingly offer other options, kids with disabilities are not enrolling in the alternatives at the same rate. Some parents may feel their child is better served with a traditional public school, said Ursula Wright, interim president and chief executive of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

"Charter schools give all parents opportunities for choices. Sometimes the choice is not to select a charter school," she said.

Some charters, such as Partnership to Uplift Communities, have made serving special needs their mission. The Los Angeles charter organization has special needs enrollment ranging from 9 percent to 17 percent at its 13 schools.

Many charters have been reluctant to tackle special education because they lack expertise, but that is starting to change, said Kaye Ragland, who heads special education for the Partnership.

Districts have started to reach out to charters to collaborate more on special education. Some, like Los Angeles Unified, are training charter teachers. Denver Public Schools has gone further.

Two years ago, the district requested that charter operators agree to a mission of equity in schools and included clauses in charter contracts stipulating that they must install programs for severe special needs if required.

Aided by district-provided training and funding, several charter operators now host centers specializing in autism, emotional disturbance and cognitive delay, serving 15 percent of the district's students with significant needs. More centers are in the works, said John Simmons, executive director of student services for Denver schools.

"We want to realize this idea of equity between traditional district schools and non-traditional schools. It's about looking at schools on a level playing field," he said.

Parents like Matthew Asner, whose 9-year-old son with autism attends a traditional Los Angeles Unified school, hope the issue gets figured it out soon. He'd like the fourth-grader to go to charter middle and high schools, but knows it's a challenge to find one that accommodates autistic students and has openings.

"I don't think we've got a good handle on this," said Asner, who is executive director of Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization. "We don't want to see this kind of exclusion."

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