Charter schools, the vanguard of the educational choice movement, haven't drawn their shares of special-needs students, especially those with the most challenging disabilities. The result: Public school officials fear they are being left with the most challenging students, but with dwindling resources to educate them.
Pittsburgh Public Schools, for instance, has seen 11 percent of its students opt for charters, but has held on to more than 97 percent of its hearing impaired, visually impaired, mentally retarded and autistic students. In two less resource-intensive special-needs categories -- learning disabled and orthopedically impaired -- more than 10 percent of Pittsburgh district students have left for charters.
By contrast, the Midland-based Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School educates 11,300 kids from all over the state, and has a student body that is 12.2 percent special-needs kids -- lower than the statewide average of 15.1 percent, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools' figure of 17.3 percent. It gets more than its fair share of autistic students, but far fewer mentally retarded children.
The choices made by special-needs students have outsized financial implications, especially in a world where school districts and charters are competing fiercely for stagnant funding. Charter schools are public schools, which get tuition from the home school districts of all the children they educate. When a special-education student from Pittsburgh, for instance, chooses a charter, the city's school district must pay the charter $28,555, which is more than double the tuition of a regular-education student.
"It is costly to provide a tuition to a charter school, and those dollars come off the top of the special-education budget," said Mary Jane Conley, the district's executive director of special-education, whose department is cutting 75 positions.
On the spending side of the ledger, a special-education student can cost a school slightly more than a regular ed kid, or many times more, depending on the severity of the disability. Charters, especially cyber charters, are accused by some districts of taking the increased tuition and spending relatively little on additional services.
"If a kid comes in with an exceptionality, and it doesn't cost $28,000, those people who are critics have a point," said Nick Trombetta, CEO of PA Cyber. "What about those cases in which [$28,000] is not enough?" he added, saying that his school has sometimes invested "six figures" in individual students with severe needs.
The stakes have spurred claims and counterclaims.
Charters say they do a better job of integrating special-needs children into regular classrooms, and sometimes even educate children to the point where tests no longer indicate any disability. Districts counter that it's a lot easier to do that when you're not getting the toughest cases.
Some districts say that some charters play a numbers game with special-needs kids. The districts say that charters declare students to have special needs to reap the higher tuition, then remove that designation before standardized test time to avoid triggering certain state reporting requirements -- a charge charters say is ridiculous.
Members of both sides agree on one thing: The state's way of funding special-needs education creates problems for everyone.
Candy Vazquez found that neither the regular public school nor a parochial school were the right fit for her son, Colton, who has Down syndrome. So she did something that relatively few parents of special-needs kids do, and enrolled him in a charter school.
As public schools chartered by their host districts or the state, and funded with tax dollars, charters can't deny a student a seat on the basis of a disability.
The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, now a K-6, was just getting launched, and officials there seemed a little hesitant about taking on Colton, Ms. Vazquez said. "At no point were we told that they wouldn't do it, but I definitely felt they weren't sure," she said last week. "I think it probably scared them."
Colton enrolled anyway, and is now finishing sixth grade there. He's included in the regular classroom. "It has not been perfect. I've been vigilant as well," Ms. Vazquez said. At one point, she pushed the school to buy a specific reading program for Colton, then had them scrap it in favor of an experimental method being developed at the University of Pittsburgh. The result? "He is finally reading."
Officials at Environmental Charter said they hold a public lottery to determine who gets a much-coveted seat in the school, and those with disabilities are in the hopper with everyone else.
When parents of special-needs kids ask, the staff talks with them about whether the school of 380, with a focus on outdoor experiences, can address their child's needs. "It's a great fit for some students," said Kate Dattilo, the school's student services coordinator. "If you don't like dirt, this may not be the program for you."
Around 14 percent of Environmental Charter's students have special needs, according to filings with the state Department of Education. Nearly four-fifths of those kids are in two less severe disability categories -- learning disabled and speech and language impaired. Among students in Pittsburgh Public Schools, by contrast, fewer than half of the special-needs students fit in those categories, with the balance having disabilities that are generally viewed as more educationally challenging.
Ms. Conley said such disparities stem from the availability in regular city schools of regional classrooms tailored to severely disabled kids. "We have been working with students with significant disabilities in a public school setting for a long time, so we have the expertise to do so successfully," she said.
Such specialized rooms aren't common in charter schools, which trumpet inclusion of kids with disabilities in regular education.
Environmental Charter has a "resource room" for special-education kids, but is phasing it out next year. Urban Pathways Charter School, a Downtown high school, has a "success room" for one-on-one teaching, but relies more on its extensive after-school tutoring program. City Charter High School, Downtown, has special-education teachers roaming regular classrooms, giving kids with challenges a hand as needed.
Pittsburgh is shifting more special-education students and teachers into regular classrooms, but "if you have a significantly impaired student, you need to provide [specialized] services" that might work best in a separate setting, said Ms. Conley.
The nine-school Propel system, headquartered on the South Side, has a lone life skills room, with just five students, at its Homestead building. It is instituting a few sensory areas for autistic kids, but generally avoids separating special-needs kids from typical peers.
"We've been really successful with a couple of kiddos who have been in very segregated settings who have come here and flourished," said Mandi Davis Skerbetz, director of pupil services for Propel. "But we have had parents who have seen the arrangement and said, 'That's not going to work for my kid.' "
When a special-needs student leaves Sto-Rox School District for a charter, he takes with him $24,585 of the district's budget -- more than twice the $11,048 tuition paid for a typical child. Sto-Rox is fighting against a proposal to open the Propel West charter school in its midst, and in a recent presentation to its board administrators accused the established Propel Montour school of manipulating the special-education process to maximize tuition while diluting accountability -- a charge Propel denied.
"Kids have gone for regular ed; Propel identified them as special ed," said Sto-Rox superintendent Michael Panza. That boosted the tuition.
The newly declared special-education students were "more just speech and language" impaired, which is considered a less severe disability, said Frank Dalmas, director of special-education at Sto-Rox.
But then, Mr. Panza said, Propel changed some students' designations back to regular education, typically in February or March, shortly before some grades have to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. He showed the school's board a list of 21 students, identified only by numbers, who transferred from Sto-Rox to Propel as regular education students over three recent school years, and who were designated by Propel as special education. Four were later returned to regular-education status.
Why? Mr. Panza believes that Propel has tried to avoid having 40 or more special-education students in the grades that take the PSSA. If 40 or more kids from a school take the PSSA tests, then they must, as a subgroup, reach certain improvement milestones in order for the school to get the coveted adequate yearly progress designation under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Not true, said Ms. Skerbetz, who said that this year, six of nine Propel schools had to report subgroups of special-needs kids. The exceptions were the Montour, McKeesport and North Side schools.
She called the Sto-Rox chronologies "not accurate. ... We can't figure out where this is coming from to even intelligently rebut it."
Propel Montour, which has attracted 129 students from Sto-Rox, or around 8 percent of the district's school-age kids, has told the state that 9.8 percent of its kids have special needs. Sto-Rox, by contrast, reports that 20.9 percent of its students get special education.
Ms. Skerbetz said Propel Montour is an anomaly, and the nine Propel schools combined have 14.3 percent special-needs students, including a higher concentration of autistic students than the state average. Data on newer Propel schools aren't available through the state yet.
The greatest concentration of special-needs students in the Propel network is 18 percent in its Homestead school. But Propel Homestead is flanked by districts with even higher concentrations of special-needs kids, like Duquesne, where 25.6 percent of the students need special services.
Ms. Skerbetz said Propel puts the special-education designation on kids only with good cause, citing a recently admitted ninth-grader with an IQ of 57 but no individual-education program.
And when Propel removes the designation, it's not for statistical purposes, she said. It's usually because Propel is able to achieve something the public school didn't.
Propel has "had our fair share of kids who come in identified with specific learning disabilities," she said. "They were never given reading instruction appropriately. But once they get that, it falls into place. ... They're functioning at or above grade level."
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542. First Published May 27, 2012 4:00 AM