‘Mystery Shopper’ Experiment Finds Charters Often Snub Those With Special Needs
Inquiries to thousands of schools across the country show that students with special needs are routinely ignored by charter schools before they even get a chance to apply.
In a “mystery shopper” experiment, researchers posing as parents sent emails to 6,452 schools — including charters and nearby traditional public schools — in 29 states and Washington, D.C. asking about eligibility and application procedures.
Some of the emails included information about a student’s disability status, behavior or academic achievement while others made no mention of any of these details.
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Overall, about half of the inquiries received a response, with similar rates of reply from traditional and charter schools. Disability status did not appear to affect the odds of hearing back from traditional public schools, but emails indicating that the child in question had a disability were 7 percent less likely to generate a response from charters.
The research “raises the question of whether high-performing charter schools are successful in part because they screen out the costliest-to-educate students from their applicant pools,” according to Isaac McFarlin Jr., an assistant professor of education and economics at the University of Florida, who conducted the study with Peter Bergman, an assistant professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
The paper notes that students with disabilities cost twice as much to educate as other children.
Though some states reimburse school districts for a larger share of the cost to educate students with disabilities, the researchers found that this did not influence the likelihood that a charter school would respond to messages indicating that a child has special needs.
“Many youth benefit greatly from attending charter schools, but some groups may fall through the cracks in the admissions process. Our hope is that this study leads to constructive dialogue on policies that foster equal access,” Bergman said.