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Charter Schools and Gifted Education: Legal Obligations

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Over the past 12 years, charter schools have grown from a few schools in one state to roughly 3,000 schools in over 40 states and territories. This explosive growth has outpaced both legislation and research on charter schools, with very little consideration given to the legal and empirical aspects of gifted education within charter schools. Charter schools, contrary to conventional wisdom, are not exempt from state and federal educational regulations, thereby requiring these schools to adhere to state requirements for the education of gifted students in all public schools. In states without legislative mandates, however, charter schools are not required to provide services to gifted students, and case law does not provide evidence that such schools can be compelled to provide such services. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for charter school organizers and students within these schools.

I. CHARTER SCHOOLS AND GIFTED EDUCATION: LEGAL OBLIGATIONS

A charter school is a publicly funded, secular school that typically has greater autonomy than traditional public schools. Specifically, charter schools are not subject to many of the administrative constraints of traditional public schools. For example, they often have greater freedom in collective bargaining and greater control over teacher hiring. In return for this flexibility, charter schools are subject to high levels of accountability, especially regarding student achievement. The "charter," which establishes each school, is a performance contract between the school authorizer and organizer that details the school's vision, mission, goals, targeted student population, as well as ways to measure success.1

President Clinton characterized charter schools as schools "that have no rules."2 President Clinton's statement is not only an oversimplification of the essential character of charters schools; it also reflects a widespread misconception regarding how charter schools operate: namely, the perception that charter schools operate largely free of state and federal regulations and laws. In reality, charter schools are subject to both federal and state laws, and are often subject to additional accountability measures as defined in state legislation and the charter for each school.

In this article, we provide a brief overview of the history of charter schools in the United States, discuss issues related to the definition of giftedness, analyze relevant state and federal legislation and litigation, and conclude with a discussion of implications for policymakers, charter school organizers, and gifted education advocates.

A. History of Charter Schools

The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota, and the first charter school was established there in 1992.3 Today, the Center for Education Reform estimates that over 2,996 charter schools currently exist in the United States.4 Although 41 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have adopted charter school legislation, Arizona, California, Florida, Texas, and Michigan have more than half of all charter schools.5 States with no charter school laws include Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.6

Charter schools are public schools that are created through a charter with a public entity such as a state or a school district.7 When a charter is issued, there is a defined limited term of operation; most charters are granted for three to five years. As a result, charter school renewal is contingent upon their success. Although charter schools are controversial, the idea has attracted bipartisan support at all levels of government.8 The federal government, with support from both Republicans and Democrats, has approved financial support for establishing charter schools as well as support for acquiring operational facilities. In President Clinton's 1997 State of the Union Address, he called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002. …