Public Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E609
Author: Eileen Ahearn
Charter schools are a relatively new component of the public education system in the United States. At the start of the 2000-2001 school year, 37 states in the United States had adopted legislation permitting charter schools, and over 2,000 charter schools were in operation with approximately 500,000 students. This digest examines the unique nature of these schools, explains their obligations in relation to serving students with disabilities, and presents the results of current research on special education in charter schools.
What Are Charter Schools?
A charter school is most often described as a new or converted public school founded by parents, teachers, or others, and operated with various levels of autonomy from state or local rules or policies. Charter schools are selected by parents for their children to attend, so they are considered "schools of choice." Each charter school has a written charter or contract issued by an authorizing body in accordance with state law. However, because each state law is different, it is impossible to give a uniform definition of charter schools or to generalize about details of their operation.
Do Charter Schools Serve Students With Disabilities?
Although public charter schools are afforded some level of exemption from state or local laws or requirements, they must conform to all federal laws and regulations including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A charter school is prohibited by law from discriminating in admissions and must accept every student who applies or hold a lottery if there are more applicants than the school can accommodate. Recruitment and admissions are addressed in a set of questions and answers regarding the application of federal civil rights laws to public charter schools published by the U. S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (2000).
What Are Some of the Issues Related to Special Education in Public Charter Schools?
The legal identity of the charter school under state law largely determines the specific responsibilities it has for its students with disabilities. There are two extremes: the charter school may be its own separate district, usually referred to as a local education agency (LEA); or the charter school may be one of the schools of a traditional district. There are also charter schools that have ties with LEAs that fall between these two extremes. If the charter school is its own LEA, it is responsible for all aspects of special education including evaluations, programs, and related services. By contrast, in some states, the LEA of the child's residence is responsible for special education for all its students even if they attend charter schools operated independently from the district.
Thus, there are profound legal, financial, and operational implications in the legal identity of a public charter school. It is critical that charter schools understand the nature of their linkage with the local district and/or intermediate unit, especially with respect to their responsibilities for providing a free appropriate public education to children with disabilities.
Charter schools are also affected by many of the same pressures faced by other public schools, such as finding appropriate special education staff, accessing fiscal resources, and integrating special education into the overall program of the school.
What Does Research Reveal About Students with Disabilities in Charter Schools?
The U.S. Department of Education has funded two studies to examine special education in charter schools. The first study, conducted by the research firm, Westat, is called Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities: A National Study (Fiore, Harwell, Blackorby, & Finnigan, 2000). It involved visits to 32 charter schools where parents, teachers and students were interviewed about why the parents chose to enroll their children with disabilities in a charter school, the ways charter schools serve those students, and how successful charter schools have been in meeting their goals. The study found that
The second federally funded study was supported by a field-initiated grant to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE). The study, Project SEARCH: Special Education As Requirements in Charter Schools (2001), focused on the implementation of special education policy in the nation's public charter schools. Some of the Project SEARCH findings follow:
What is Needed to Increase the Capacity of Charter Schools to Provide Special Education?
To ensure appropriate compliance, school districts employ an administrator of special education who is knowledgeable about legal requirements, proper procedure, and the delivery of services. Since most charter schools are very small and their funding is limited, their staffs seldom include such an individual. Yet, for purposes of implementing IDEA, charter schools need to be connected in some way with a special education infrastructure. This could be accomplished through an existing LEA, the SEA, a cooperative organized to provide special education support, or some other structure. Access to the necessary expertise, provided in a way that does not compromise the autonomy of the charter school and its mission, is essential to ensure appropriate services for students with disabilities and protect the charter schools from the serious consequences of avoidable non-compliance.
Research has revealed that everyone involved with charter schools, state and district officials, operators and charter school staff to understand the policy conflicts that surround the implementation of special education in charter schools and their need for a supportive connection to special education expertise. Such understanding will contribute significantly to the improvement of results for students with disabilities who attend public charter schools.
Internet resources cited in this document were current at the time of publication. Please note that Web addresses are subject to change.
Ahearn, E. M., McLaughlin, M. J., Lange, C. M., & Rhim, L. M. (in press). Project SEARCH: A national study of special education in charter schools. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. To be available online at http://www.nasdse.org/project_search.htm
Fiore, T. A., Harwell, L. M., Blackorby, J., & Finnigan, K. S. (2000). Charter schools and students with disabilities: A national study. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (Available online at http://www.uscharterschools.org.)
Nelson, B., Berman. P., Ericson, J., Kamprath, N., Perry, R., Silverman, D., & Solomon, D. (2000). The state of charter schools 2000: Fourth-year report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. (Available online at http://www.uscharterschools.org.) ED 437724.
U.S. Office for Civil Rights. (2000, December). Applying federal civil rights laws to public charter schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. (Available online at http://www.uscharterschools.org/pdf/fr/civil_rights.pdf.) ED 443233.
Ahearn, E. M. (1999). Charter schools and special education: A report on state policies. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. ED 429416
Fiore, T. A. & Cashman, E. R. (1998). Review of charter school legislation provisions related to students with disabilities. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. ED 426511
Fiore, T. A., Warren, S. H., & Cashman, E. R. (1999). Charter schools and students with disabilities: Review of existing data. Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. ED 426575. Studies funded by the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement: http://www.ed.gov/pubs/studies.html#Charter.
Center for Education Reform: http://www.edreform.com/pubs/chglance.htm. (National statistics on charter schools are maintained and regularly updated on this website.)
U.S. Charter Schools: http://www.uscharterschools.org
References with an ED number are available for a fee through the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS) at http://edrs.com or call 800.443.3742.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education