Charter Schools and Students with Special Needs: How Well Do They Mix?

Article excerpt

Abstract

In an effort to improve what many perceive as inadequate public education, legislators and school reformers have embraced the concept of charter schools in hopes of "raising the bar" of student achievement through educational innovation. Amidst this movement, however, lies the reality of students with special needs and federal disability law mandating a free and appropriate public education for all students. This article reviews the literature citing legal and ethical concerns regarding students with disabilities and school choice, questions the degree to which students with disabilities, and particularly emotional/behavioral disorders, are served in charter schools, and reports the results of a survey measuring service to students with disabilities in some charter schools in Texas. Suggestions are presented to ensure appropriate accommodation.

"Reform" is a word frequently voiced in regard to public education. Members of the media publish the results of studies, valid or invalid, that portray the achievement of America's students in a negative light when compared with that of other nations. Economists predict direly that the American system of education will negatively impact the nation's ability to compete in a global marketplace. Policymakers, responding to public concern over the effectiveness of the nation's schools, make education a priority in their campaigns. If public education is ineffective, it is reasoned, the way to improvement is change.

To that end, various models of school reform have been proposed and adopted. Among these are choice options such as voucher plans that allow parents to enroll their children in privately run schools with public funds, and public charter schools designed to permit innovative programming as a result of state deregulation. To date, policymakers in thirty-six states have passed legislation aimed at the establishment of charter schools.

In light of the growing movement, legal commentators remind public charter school operators that no student with a disability may be denied freedom of choice, nor the services and protections assured by federal disability law. They point to the paradox of state deregulation, resulting in reduced paperwork and reporting requirements, that exists concurrently with the far-reaching regulations, paperwork requirements, and costly program expenditures of federal disability law (Heubert, 1997; McKinney, 1998; McKinney & Mead, 1996). Indeed, choice options in the public sector are subject to all of the mandates of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that affect traditional public schools (Heubert, 1997; McKinney, 1998; McKinney & Mead, 1996; Nathan, 1998). Charter operators expecting academic freedom may be surprised by the contradiction.

Not surprisingly, advocates for students with disabilities are concerned that charter school directors may be unprepared to meet the requirements of federal disability law. They point to the potential for discrimination against students with disabilities, a lack of expertise in service delivery, a lack of experience with legal requirements, limited funding resulting in inadequate programming, and to isolation that may result when students with disabilities are educated in segregated environments (Council for Exceptional Children, 1999; Lange & Ysseldyke, 1994; Lange & Ysseldyke, 1998; L. F. Rothstein, 1999; Silver, 1998).

This article briefly reviews the literature detailing legal and ethical concerns with public charter school education and students with disabilities, questions the extent to which students with emotional/behavioral disorders (E/BD) are included in the charter movement, reviews the results of an informal survey conducted with charter school directors in the state of Texas, and provides suggestions to help ensure an appropriate education for all students in public charter schools. …

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