Caught Red Handed: A Charter School Cherry Picks Their Students

The percentage of students with special education needs at El Camino Real Charter is significantly lower than in surrounding high schools. This must be fixed before the LAUSD renews its charter.

According to the State of Denial report presented to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board on September 3, 2019, charter schools saved $74.65 million by serving a lower percentage of students with special education needs. This affects every student enrolled in an LAUSD school as these costs must be borne by the District and results in cuts to other programs. As advocates for public school students, board members have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that every charter school is not excluding children with special education needs from their student body.

The LAUSD Charter School Division (CSD) reports that El Camino Real Charter High School serves 35.9% fewer students with special education needs than the district does. Despite the significant cost to the students of the LAUSD, the CSD states that there are “no concerns” about special education and that “there is no evidence…that [the] Charter School is not serving all pupils who wish to attend based on data on pupil enrollment patterns.” They have recommended that the LAUSD approve El Camino’s renewal at its meeting on Tuesday.

Under the CSD’s criteria, charter schools have no obligation to put programs in place that would attract students with special education needs. Instead, the requirement should be that these children “wish to attend” any charter school just as much as their general education counterparts. Forcing charter schools to attract the same percentage of these students as their LAUSD counterparts would ensure that they were devoting adequate resources to special education. The district must enforce the part of El Camino’s charter that states that they will “ensure the recruitment, enrollment, service, and retention of students with disabilities”.

El Camino has a greater responsibility to attract children with special needs than other charter schools because it is converted from an LAUSD public school. As a neighborhood school, its population should be representative of the area it serves. Instead, the percentage of its population with special education needs is dramatically lower than any of the neighboring public schools, all of which have higher percentages of students with these needs than the LAUSD as a whole. This may indicate that they are covering El Camino’s deficit of responsibility. It also means that the public schools are at a financial disadvantage to the charter school who has avoided these costs.

The financial discrepancies are made worse by the types of disabilities that are underrepresented at El Camino. This charter school serves 61.3% fewer students with Autism than LAUSD schools and 87.1% fewer children with Intellectual Disabilities. Services provided to children with these disabilities tend to be more expensive than other services, resulting in even larger costs to the schools that have to take up the slack.

It should also be noted that the CSD has failed to hold El Camino accountable for the admission rules set in its current charter. This document specifically states that the “Charter School shall not request or require submission of a student’s IEP, 504 Plan, or any other record or related information before admission, participation in any admissions or attendance lottery, or pre-enrollment event or process, or as a condition of admission or enrollment.” Despite this restriction, El Camino asks prospective parents to provide the “most recent copy of student’s IEP/504 plan”. The school even wants this paperwork if the “student has exited special education services in the past school year.

Charter schools are not allowed to request this paperwork prior to enrollment because identifying children in need of special education services before enrollment may give the impression that the school is screening for these services. This may discourage some parents from enrolling their children in the charter school. Unfortunately, this prohibition has been removed from the charter renewal document for El Camino that the board has been asked to approve which may further reduce the number of children with special education needs in the student body.

Under the newly passed AB1505, school districts have been given wider latitude in rejecting charter school applications and renewals. If the charter school making the request will cause financial harm to the district, it can be denied. Since the low percentage of children receiving special education services is severely harmful to the financial health of the LAUSD, the board should either require El Camino to fix this problem or reimburse the district for the extra costs that it is incurring. Otherwise, the renewal should be rejected.


Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD’s CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.

Parent, special education advocate and former LAUSD School Board candidate. Still fighting for the children. www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com

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