ERIC Identifier: ED455656
Publication Date: 2001-06-00
Author: Ahearn, Eileen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Disabilities and Gifted Education Arlington VA.
Public Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities. ERIC
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
DO CHARTER SCHOOLS SERVE STUDENTS WITH
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
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
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
* Enrollment of students with more significant disabilities in charter
schools is relatively rare, except in schools specifically designed for these
* Parents of students with disabilities enroll their child in a charter
school for a combination of reasons related to attractive features of the
charter school and negative experiences with the previously attended school.
* Staff at some charter schools may "counsel" parents of students with
disabilities against enrolling in the charter school. However, other schools are
specifically designed to serve these students and other at-risk learners.
* Most charter schools use the term "inclusion" to describe their approach to
serving students with disabilities. The meaning of the term varies across
* By almost all accounts, students with and without disabilities receive more
individualized attention at the charter school than they did at their previous
* Although accountability is a central feature of charter schools, most of
them have little data to document the impact of their program on students with
disabilities. However, parents and students themselves are confident about the
students' success at charter schools. Factors identified as supporting student
success include caring and dedicated teachers and small schools and classes.
* Some barriers encountered include lack of adequate funding, strained
relationships with local districts, lack of extracurricular activities, and
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:
* There is much variability and a great need for defining specific roles and
responsibilities of state education agencies (SEAs), LEAs and other
administrative units, and individual charter schools in relation to special
* Charter school application and contracting processes often provide little
more than assurances that special education services will be provided; they
generally do not require demonstration of the capacity to meet those
* Most charter school operators have limited understanding of
federal/state/local sources of special education funding and how to access these
* Charter schools often have difficulty locating appropriate special
education staff, including teachers and related services personnel.
* A charter school's philosophy and curricular orientation can cause conflict
between the school's goals and special education requirements.
Two critical policy conflicts that underlie many of the specific findings of
the study were identified:
* Team decision-making vs. parental choice-the tension between the special
education principle of individualized educational decision-making through a team
and the primacy of parental choice, a major characteristic of charter schools,
* Autonomy vs. regulation-conflict that arises from the compliance and
procedural regulation associated with special education and the principle of
autonomy that is so central to the charter school concept.
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-authorizers, state and district officials, operators and charter school
staff-needs 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
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 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 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 www.uscharterschools.org). ED 437 724.
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 www.dssc.org/frc/fed/ocr_charter.htm). ED 443 233.
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 429 416.
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
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 426