Policy Documents

Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Public Charter Schools

Lauren Morando Rhim, and Paul O’Neill –
October 21, 2013

In this important report, the authors write that roughly 13 percent of students enrolled in public schools have a disability that qualifies them to receive support services under the umbrella of special education and related services. the majority of these students can be expected to achieve on par with their peers who do not require additional supports. and the most recent CREDO report found that across the states analyzed, students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools outperformed their peers in mathematics. Provision of special education and related services in public charter schools has been an ongoing source of debate since the sector’s inception: Where do these new, autonomous schools fit in the topography of public schools under federal special education requirements? and are public charter schools welcoming students with diverse learning needs? While much of the debate has been influenced by single-case anecdotes and hyperbole, where there is smoke there is often fire. the charter sector needs to proactively address concerns related to access and provision of quality services for students with disabilities.

This report explores the relevant legal framework that shapes special education in the charter sector; outlines both the challenges and opportunities presented by state public charter school laws that create autonomous schools that operate separate from or alongside traditional public school districts; and identifies key accountability structures. Efforts to change the dynamics must focus on

(1) creating quality programs that attract a diverse array of students and

(2) holding accountable charter schools that fall short, by design or default, of welcoming and supporting students with disabilities.

Based on legal actions in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and anecdotes from other cities where access and service provision are increasingly under a microscope, charter schools that fail to chart an intentional course related to students with disabilities may be subject to cumbersome regulatory burdens advanced by charter opponents. However, public charter schools do not need to wait until required to improve their approach to educating students with disabilities. the following actions can help operators and support organizations proactively ensure that their schools not only welcome but also create exceptional opportunities for all students, including students with disabilities.