How Charter Schools & Vouchers Affect Special Education

By Docherty, Maria; Agoratus, Lauren | The Exceptional Parent, September 2017 | Go to article overview

How Charter Schools & Vouchers Affect Special Education


Docherty, Maria, Agoratus, Lauren, The Exceptional Parent


Families should carefully weigh the pros and cons of charter schools and vouchers, and speak with their Parent Training and Information Center about their state laws, regulations, and policies regarding special education and charters or vouchers, before making a decision.

With the increased focus in the United States on charter schools and the use of vouchers to support student attendance at private schools, more and more parents of students with disabilities are asking questions about how charter schools and vouchers impact special education. This article provides answers to some of those questions!

Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that are established under terms of a local or national charter. Most are founded by professionals. They must operate by their "charter," which establishes their purpose, etc., as well as federal education laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and relevant state laws. Many charter schools use a lottery system to accept applicants.

A quick look at the data demonstrates that students with disabilities are underrepresented in charter schools, and students with significant disabilities are even more under-represented. A 2012 report from the Government Accounting Office found that charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools (http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/591435.pdf). That report also noted that "[a]necdotal accounts also suggest that some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling and denying admission to students with more severe disabilities because services are too costly."

In some states, charter schools have been formed to serve only students with disabilities, resulting in their increased segregation and no opportunities for interaction with their non-disabled peers. A study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes on charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia examined the overall performance of charter schools across multiple subject areas. They found that while some charter schools do better than traditional public schools, the majority do the same or worse. Also, 37% of charter schools performed significantly worse in terms of reading and math than traditional public schools, compared to only 17% that performed significantly better than traditional public schools.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies has conducted a study of charter school suspension practices and found that charter schools suspend students with disabilities at two to three times the rate of nondisabled students, and in fact have a higher suspension rate than traditional public schools.

It is important to know that state laws regarding charter schools vary. In 16 states they are considered Local Education Agencies (LEAs) (local districts) and are responsible for full implementation of IDEA, including providing a full continuum of services and placements. In 11 states, charters are considered public schools within LEAs, and it is the local district that is responsible for IDEA compliance. In the rest of the states, charter schools can be either their own district or an option within a larger district. Families of children with disabilities can find out about laws regarding charter schools in their state by contacting their Parent Training and Information Center (see Resources.)

Some things families of students with disabilities should remember about charter schools:

* They can't discriminate based on disability in application, selection, services, or exclusion after acceptance.

* Applications should not ask if the prospective student has a disability or needs a particular special education service.

* Students with disabilities, once accepted, must be provided with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

* A charter school may not unilaterally limit the services it provides a particular student with a disability. …

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