In latest move, Gates Foundation looks to help — and learn from — charters serving students with disabilities

Re-posted from an article on chalkbeat.org

By Matt Barnum

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s new charter school strategy is taking shape.

The foundation has made four grants in recent months focused on helping charter schools better serve students with disabilities. That’s one of the ways Bill Gates said last fall that the influential foundation would focus its education giving over the next five years, along with efforts to grow networks of schools and improve curriculum. (The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

The foundation hasn’t made a public announcement of the new investments, but its website lists four groups that have been awarded money for the work.

Last month, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools was granted nearly $1.2 million “to elevate policy-advocacy for students with disabilities in charter schools.” The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools got $300,000 “to support national charter policy-advocacy on growth, quality and special education integration.” And the National Center for Learning Disabilities netted $700,000 “to help build an evidence base for supporting students with disabilities.”

In July, the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank at the University of Washington, won more than $1.2 million “to identify the instructional, curricular, organizational, cultural, and policy conditions associated with effective delivery of special education in charter schools.”

The four grants amount to a relatively modest total of about $3.4 million. Gates, the biggest philanthropic funder of education in the country, said last year that the foundation planned to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years on U.S. education, about 15 percent of which would go to charter school efforts.

“We are investing in charters initially for this work because we believe they have the autonomy and flexibility to innovate; and because we acknowledge that research shows that historically charter schools have underserved students with disabilities, in terms of numbers and levels of support,” Gates deputy director Don Shalvey said in a statement.

A 2013 national study showed that 8 percent of charter school students qualified for special education services, but 11 percent of students in nearby district schools did. It’s not entirely clear why the difference exists; critics argue that charter schools are more likely to push needy students out or not enroll them in the first place, while some charter officials say it reflects their decision not to unnecessarily label students who need extra academic help.

One New York City-focused study found that the special education gap in elementary school was because fewer disabled students applied to charters and fewer charter students were classified as disabled, not because special education students left charters at a higher rate. Nationally, charter schools suspend students with disabilities more frequently than traditional public schools. Other research on this question is fairly limited.

Shalvey said the goal of the grants is to review “what has worked in the past,” including in charter schools that are successfully serving students with disabilities, and “produce the knowledge that will help us scale beyond the initial group of charter schools.” Additional grants will be announced in the coming months, according to the foundation.

Gates has given money to other charter school efforts in recent months as well: The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition netted nearly $530,000, and the foundation is spending $9.8 million to help construct a Green Dot charter high school in south Seattle. The City Fund, a new group founded by a collection of education leaders who support the “portfolio model,” received $10 million for work in Oakland; in other cities, this approach has meant the expansion of charter schools.

Outside of charter schools, Gates has made a number of $90,000 grants to help school districts with college advising.