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Books in Translation

November 1994 | Volume 52 | Number 3
Strategies for Success Pages 84-85

Special Topic / How School Choice Affects Students With Special Needs

Cheryl Lange and James E. Ysseldyke

Surveys in Minnesota show that students with disabilities and special needs benefit from various school choice options.

Any discussion of school choice must include an analysis of the success of enrollment options for those already in need of special consideration in the schools—children with disabilities and special needs. Minnesota's position as a leader in enrollment options implementation provides an ideal environment for reviewing what has been happening to students who are on the fringes of the educational system.

Many Different Options

Minnesota has several types of school choice options available to its 750,000 students: open enrollment, four kinds of second-chance programs, postsecondary enrollment options, and charter schools. Studies conducted over the past four years shed light on the impact those options have had on special needs students.

One of these options, open enrollment, allows students to apply in January for a transfer to any school district for the coming fall. Only lack of space or noncompliance with desegregation rulings can be justification for denial of these applications.

Second-chance programs, primarily for students in grades 7–12 who are at risk of dropping out of school, are available at any time of the school year. These include area learning center programs, high school graduation incentives, public or private school alternative programs, and education programs for pregnant minors and minor parents.

Another type of choice, the postsecondary option, allows juniors and seniors to apply for enrollment at private and public postsecondary institutions for high school and college credit.

The newest option is the charter school, where educators, parents, students, and community members can organize a school that is financially independent from the local school board.

Do students with special needs, those at-risk in the current system, those in need of considerable time and energy, participate in all these options? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. The reasons for their transfers may be different, but in each option a large special needs contingency changes schools. Here are some of the ways students are using these programs.

Open Enrollment

Survey data indicate that the families of special needs students are increasingly using the open enrollment option (Ysseldyke et al. 1994). Although the number of participants is still rather small in Minnesota (13,000 in 1992–93, up from 6,000 in 1991), students with special needs make up approximately 7 percent of those participating.

Both survey and qualitative data emphasize how intensely these families feel about having the opportunity to choose school districts (Ysseldyke et al. 1993). Parents are articulate in stating their children's needs and how the schools should address those needs. Over 60 percent of parents surveyed report that their needs were better met at their chosen school.

While it has not yet been documented that these children are receiving superior educational experiences, the perception of the families is that they are in a better situation. Some studies have questioned whether the school choice transfers actually result in better education for the child or if the families only perceive an increase in quality (Driscoll 1991, Sosniak and Ethington 1991). It may be that when parents and students are allowed to seek out the best alternative for the student, it has a positive effect on the child's education.

Second-Chance Programs

Another 30,000 students in Minnesota transferred schools through a second-chance program during 1992–93. These programs allow students who are behind two or more years academically or who have dropped out of school, are pregnant, or are custodial parents to attend any school in the state or one of the state's 130 public or private alternative programs.

These students have often dropped out of school or been expelled from a traditional high school. They attribute their success at the alternative school to their relationship with the staff in the chosen setting. They also report that they are less likely to get into trouble at the alternative school and are more likely to stay in school.

This school choice option is clearly meeting the needs of many of our most alienated young people. These students are staying in the system and having their educational needs met in a nontraditional way.

The Postsecondary Option

During the 1990–91 school year, approximately 6 percent, or 259 of the 4,083 students using the postsecondary option, were classified as having a disability or special need.1  Most of these students attended a technical college. In some cases, the percentage of students with disabilities participating in the postsecondary option at a particular college was over 40 percent. Why were these students using this option? What is the value to the student and to the system?

Many students with disabilities have been in the high school system for five to six years. Because federal law allows them to be educated in the public system through age 21, they often extend their last stages of K–12 education for several years. The postsecondary option allows them to gracefully make the transition from school to a postsecondary environment under the guidance of teachers and counselors familiar with their situation and needs.

Follow-up studies of youths with disabilities indicate that many of them are not pursuing additional education after high school (Fairweather and Shaver 1991, Butler-Nalin and Marder 1989). Postsecondary options are one way to bridge the transition between the K–12 system and postsecondary training and, thus, increase the numbers of these students moving toward productive adult life.

Charter Schools

As with the other options, students with special needs are choosing charter schools. In fact, one of the charter schools that opened in 1993 was the Metro Deaf School, where American Sign Language is the principal language. Many educators believe presenting instruction in the student's principal language will increase achievement. There are other arguments to be considered, however, when choice options result in a more segregated setting for any student. What must be addressed is whether these options are resulting in more positive student outcomes.

Those who want to open a charter school may argue their educational position before a state body. As in the case of all charter schools, the Metro Deaf School has been given a limited amount of time (three years) to demonstrate increased student success.

An Impact on Schools

Choice has allowed many who may have otherwise become alienated from the system to remain in it. The debate must continue over whether the available options make sense for reform. A close look not just at the numerical data but also at the impact on individuals must be part of the debate, and the scrutiny must be extended to the impact on special needs students.

Many documented problems are associated with the impact of school choice on the educational system (Fowler-Finn 1994, Kozol 1992, Molnar 1992), and issues of equity must be addressed. But for many, school choice provides the chance to experience education in a way that keeps learning alive. And that is what it is all about.


Butler-Nalin P., and C. Marder. (March 1989). “Making the Transition: An Explanatory Model of Special Education Students' Participation in Postsecondary Education.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Driscoll, M. E. (October 1991). “Parents and Public Choice Schools: Findings from National Data.” Paper presented at the annual conference of The University Council on Educational Administration, Baltimore.

Fairweather, J., and D. Shaver. (1991). “Making the Transition to Postsecondary Education and Training.” Exceptional Children 57, 3: 264–270.

Fowler-Finn, T. (1994). “Why Have They Chosen Another School System?” Educational Leadership 51, 4: 60–62.

Kozol, J. (1992). “I Dislike the Idea of Choice, and I Want To Tell You Why...” Educational Leadership 50, 3: 90–92.

Molnar, A. (1992). “What Are Our Choices” Educational Leadership 50, 3: 84–85.

Sosniak L. A., and C. A. Ethington. (April 1991). “Schools of Choice and the Academic Curriculum: Findings from Schools of Choice in the Public Sector.” Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Ysseldyke, J., C. Lange, T. Delaney, and M. Lau. (1993). “School Choice: Parent Perspectives and Perceptions.” Interventions in School and Clinic 29, 2: 70–77.

Ysseldyke, J., C. Lange, and D. Gorney. (1994). “Parents of Students with Disabilities and Open Enrollment: Characteristics and Reasons for Transfer.” Exceptional Children 60, 4: 359–372.


1  A partial count as of September 1990.

Cheryl Lange is Coordinator, Enrollment Options for Students with Disabilities Project, College of Education, and James E. Ysseldyke is Professor of Educational Psychology and Director, National Center on Educational Outcomes, University of Minnesota, 350 Elliot Hall, 75 E. River Rd., Minneapolis, MN 55455.


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