Charting the Course of Special Education in Texas' Charter Schools

By Estes, Mary Bailey | Education & Treatment of Children, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Charting the Course of Special Education in Texas' Charter Schools


Estes, Mary Bailey, Education & Treatment of Children


Abstract

Amidst the call for school choice and the popularity of charter schools lie the realities of students with disabilities, and federal disability laws designed to ensure those students an appropriate education. Despite state deregulation, charter schools are subject to all of the mandates of federal disability law, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Yet, are these schools enrolling students with disabilities, and if so, are they fulfilling the mandates of law and providing students the education they deserve? This article presents results of a 2001 study of Texas' charter schools that addresses these questions.

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School choice as a movement and public charter schools as a form of choice have proliferated since the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991 (Nathan, 1996; Parkay & Stanford, 1998). Thirty-eight states have adopted legislation providing for charter schools (Sandham, 2001), which operated in 36 states and the District of Columbia during 2002-2003 (Center for Education Reform, 2003). Envisioned to improve education through marketplace accountability and lessened bureaucratic controls, these schools vary in mission and appeal. Some target students from specific cultures (Levin, 1999; Rhim & McLaughlin, 1999; Toch, 1998), some reach students at risk of failure or dropout (Estes, 2001), some provide a college preparatory curriculum, and some offer a "back to basics" approach (R. Rothstein, 1998, p. 3). Still others serve students with specific disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 1997).

Amidst the call for school choice and the popularity of charter schools lie the realities of students with disabilities, and federal disability laws designed to ensure those students an appropriate education. Despite state deregulation, charter schools are subject to all of the mandates of federal disability law, including the 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Yet, are public charter schools fulfilling these mandates and providing their students with disabilities the education they deserve?

The Texas Charter School Movement

Texas' charter statute, the nation's seventh strongest according to the Center for Education Reform (2001), was adopted in 1995. The first 20 schools opened during 1996-97, and by August of 2001, 180 charters were operational (Charter School Resource Center of Texas, 2001). The Texas statute allows for the issuance of charters to four types of sponsoring entities, but the "vast majority have gone to tax-exempt nonprofit corporations with no ties to local school districts" (Charter School Resource Center of Texas, p.4; F. Kemerer, personal communication, June, 1999). Texas' open enrollment charter schools operate as independent local education agencies, and as such are fully responsible for all of the services provided by the larger, more experienced school districts. Under state law, professional certification is not a requirement for those who teach in the public charter schools, nor is a college degree [Texas Education Code, Section 12.129, TEA, 2001].

Individuals who desire to open a charter school in Texas must submit an application to the Texas Education Agency (TEA). According to the State Board of Education (2000), The Division of Charter Schools within TEA reviews the application and forwards it to a pool of external reviewers who award points based on plans to provide for innovation, student performance, parental/community support, personnel qualifications, minimal impact on local schools, and finances. Only those applications meeting the board established minimum score of 150 of a possible 200 points are subsequently reviewed by TEA staff representing the divisions of charter schools, school audits, legal services, student support services, and "other divisions, as appropriate to determine whether applications meet the statutory requirements and criteria adopted" by the State Board of Education (State Board of Education, p. …

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