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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Special Education Services in Charter Schools

Education Week recently published a very interesting article titled Charters: Students With Disabilities Need Not Apply? Although charter schools have existed since the early 1990s, many people do not understand what it is and how it works. The almost always reliable Wikipedia provides a nice overview of charter schools; and in the very first sentence, we learn that:

Charter schools are elementary or secondary schools in the United States that receive public money but have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results . . .

In Charters: Students With Disabilities Need Not Apply?, Thomas Hehir reminds us that charter schools are not exempt from special education law. Indeed charter schools must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, Section 504, Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as applicable state anti-discrimination laws. Randy Chapman, the Director of The Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People in Colorado, provides a concise overview of the laws that charter schools must comply with in The IDEA and Charter Schools. For more specific examples in Question and Answer Format, see the Pennsylvania Education Law Center’s pamphlet, Students With Disabilities Attending Public Charter Schools.

Yet, according to studies and anecdotal evidence that Mr. Hehir cites, charter schools apparently serve few students with disabilities and may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling.

There is at least one white paper about the special education challenges that charter schools must face: Lauren Morando Rhim’s Special Education Challenges and Opportunities in the Charter School Sector (NCSRP Working Paper # 2008-12, Center on Reinventing Public Education) (cited with permission).

This paper clearly illustrates the many special education issues that charter schools face due to their small size. Here is an excerpt:

[C]harter schools are generally too small to realize economies of scale when it comes to special education staff or programs. For instance, a charter school with a child with autism is required to provide the same services and supports as a district with a large number of children with autism. Furthermore, the district can place the students with autism in a single school and concentrate specialized staff, materials, and equipment, thereby distributing the overall program cost across multiple children. A charter school with only one or two children with autism cannot distribute the cost of the services across multiple students.

If charter schools are too small to realize economies of scale, then parents and their children will, inevitably, face challenges too.

Another interesting challenge for parents of students with disabilities is that a charter school can be its own district or it can be its own Local Educational Agency (LEA), which may be problematic. A good overview of these two challenges can be found in Public Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities. For more details about the relationship between charter schools and LEAs, I suggest reading Charter School Legal Status and Linkage to an LEA.

In late 2009, the Boston Globe ran a story, Charter schools lag in serving the neediest, which questioned the successes of charter schools due to the fact that charter schools recruit fewer children with special needs and children whose native tongue is not English. The reporter asked a very important question: “Are many charter schools achieving dazzling [achievement test] scores because of innovative teaching or because they enroll fewer disadvantaged students?”

I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, though the evidence we have seems to suggest that charter schools aren’t terribly in favor of school diversity. Based on what I’ve read thus far, it appears that school segregation is increasingly becoming a hot topic once again–this time in charter schools.

When charter schools do not serve the needs of disadvantaged students, including students with disabilities, this gives the public a distorted view why charter schools may be so successful.

Whether or not the public has a distorted view of charter schools, the reality is that there are more than 5,000 charter schools throughout the country. That number will surely increase; and the government, children’s advocates, and special education attorneys must work together to ensure that charter schools comply with applicable federal and state laws governing special education.

Charter schools are a viable option for many children. In some cases, it may be a viable option for children with disabilities. Before enrolling your child at a charter school, it is important to do your research and due diligence. If you are considering finding a charter school for your child, see this map.

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