Local Charter Schools Miss Mark on Special Education Admissions

Santa Clara County’s Board of Education met all day Saturday to hear an annual report from its 20 authorized charter schools. The Board requests these annual reports as a way to provide oversight. They give a colorful and thoughtful picture of the publicly-funded charter schools here in Santa Clara County.

During my six-plus years as a trustee, the Board has always demanded that charter schools mirror the demographics of the community they serve. In addition, we have consistently requested that the percentage of special education students in these charters also reflect their traditional public school numbers.

With that said, on Saturday we were given a data book with enrollment numbers for each charter, including the percentages of students with special needs and formal Individual Education Plans (IEPs). The data indicate that six of 20 authorized charters have significantly more special education students than the traditional public school average per district. Here are a few examples listed in data book:

  • Discovery II has 13.3 percent of students who require IEPs, and San Jose Unified has 9.7 percent.
  • ACE Empower Academy has 12.8 percent of students who require IEPs, and Alum Rock has 10.8 percent.
  • Summit Denali has 13.4 percent of students requiring IEPs, and Sunnyvale Elementary has 9.7 percent.

On the other side, 14 of the charters we’ve authorized have significantly less IEP students. Here are a few examples:

  • Bullis has 6.4 percent of students who require IEPs, and Los Altos Elementary with 9.8%.
  • Rocketship Alma has 6.8 percent of students who require IEPs, and San Jose Unified has 9.7 percent.
  • Rocketship Mateo Sheedy has 3.4 percent of students who require IEPs, and San Jose Unified has 9.7 percent.

The goal of equity is not being met, but it’s about equal numbers—it’s about making certain all students achieve their potential academically and socially, and are on the road to being college and career ready. Identifying more special education students is not the answer.

I have participated in several hundred IEP meetings in my years as a school principal, and I know there is no magic bullet in the IEP or accompanying services, whether push-in or pullout. Achievement and on-task behavior is often a result of the relationship a student has with their regular classroom teacher.

However, special education services that do not "include" children in regular classrooms often do a disservice to the learner. Teachers must believe all students can learn, just not always in the same way on the same day. Public school teachers in California should have the ability to differentiate learning for each and every student in the regular classroom, with help from expert instructional coaches. To do this, professional development in districts must be targeted to providing strategic ways to meet the learning needs of all students.

California spends more than $8 billion dollars every year—in federal, state and district funds—to assist 700,000 special education students. A 2015 report on special education funding indicates that we need "a far-reaching integration of special education students, teachers and programs into regular education." This new effort is driven by low achievement rates for special education students throughout the system. The task force's draft report indicates that 90 percent of identified special education students have no cognitive impairment.

My years as a teacher for incarcerated youth convinced me that African-American and Latino students are more likely to be incorrectly placed into special education programs. In a Fall 2014 report titled, "Pipeline to Prison: Special education leads to jail for thousands of American Children," the authors found that "too often, special need students receive an inferior education, fall behind, and end up with few options for college and career."

At Saturday's meeting, the Board agreed to have a future informational item on special education services, the Response to Intervention model and an explanation on why SCCOE-authorized charter schools have significantly fewer IEP students than their traditional public school peers. I look forward to the discussion.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Short version:
    a. 90% of IEP students don’t merit inclusion in the program.
    b. IEP students have low achievement rates & we don’t know why.
    c. We spend over $8B/year (~ $11,430 / IEP student).
    d. SCCBOE has an IEP quota system
    e. Mr. Di Salvo advocates spending more money without outcome based performance measures.
    f. Mr. Di Salvo appears eager to sacrifice the needs of the vast majority of students for political correctness reasons.

  2. Are the raw numbers from the data book easily available? (Yes, today I’m internet-lazy to the point of not checking whether SCCBOE minutes and attachments are on the web).

    I find it interesting that “six of 20 authorized charters have significantly more” and “14 of the charters we’ve authorized have significantly less”. I’d like to know what the threshold for significance is, because in a population of 20, I’d expect at least one charter to be close to parity with its district.

    Also, it would be interesting to see the relative size of the district and charter student populations across these samples. I would never expect the charter and district IEP percentages to be identical, and there may be subtleties that could explain these variances.

    • Thanks. Refreshing to see others not as statistically challenged as Mr. Di Salvo and the other SCCBOE members evidently are.

  3. I have a question about your comment, Mr. Taxpayer. Do students have to “merit” inclusion in a charter school program paid for by taxes? Who should be allowed in a charter school?

    • Certain I’m not Ms. Taxpayer?

      Reread Mr. Di Salvo’s piece: “The task force’s draft report indicates that 90 percent of identified special education students have no cognitive impairment.” The statement makes no distinction between charter v. public schools.

      It suggests that 90% of the special ed students don’t merit inclusion in the program – nor justify the associated program cost / staff that’s supporting them.

      Seems like $7.2B / year could be more wisely spent for our children’s education.

  4. I taught Independent studies for the East Side Union High School District at Foothill on Gay Ave. The program although identified as Independent Studies was a Charter School Program bringing in over a million dollars annually. The program kept the East Side flush with the amount of money it was making. I saw Administrators taking advantage of these funds for personal use and gain. At meetings we were told as instructors we had only 45 to 55 minutes with a student and if the material was still not clear we were to drop the student. The program had no time beyond the slotted appointment. We were not allowed to spend time after school or before school. It was a matter of streamlining the instruction so as to receive the maximum amount of funding from the charter program.

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