Special Education and English Language Learner Students in Boston Charter Schools: Impact and Classification

Working Paper

Elizabeth Setren

October 2016

Special education and English Language Learners experience large achievement gaps and account for a disproportionate amount of school spending. Whether and how well charter schools serve special needs students remains a central controversy in the charter school debate. The author uses admissions lotteries from nearly every charter school in Boston to estimate the effects of charter enrollment on special needs students’ classification and achievement. Charter schools remove special needs classifications and move special education students into more inclusive classrooms at a rate over two times higher than traditional public schools. Despite this reduction in special needs services, charters increase special needs students’ test scores, likelihood of meeting a high school graduation requirement, and likelihood of earning a state merit scholarship. Charters benefit even the most disadvantaged special needs students: those with the lowest test scores and those who receive the most services at the time of lottery. Non-experimental evidence suggests that the classification removal explains at most 26 percent of the achievement gains for special needs students and has no detrimental effect. The results show that special needs students can achieve gains without the traditional set of special needs services in the charter environment.