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Charter Schools

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 “Charter schools must be held accountable for ensuring access to all students, for providing meaningful teaching and instruction designed to improve educational outcomes. Regardless of the policy opinions driving the debate, the law is clear. Students with disabilities who are educated in public schools, either traditional or charter, must be provided FAPE in the LRE.”

~ Kathy Boundy, Esq., Center for Law and Education 
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Charter schools have long been touted as one of the most promising educational choice options throughout the U.S. public school system. For over twenty years, the U.S. Congress has provided funding to states through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to create new charters. As recipients of federal funds under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and as state or governmental entities under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), charter schools cannot discriminate against students with disabilities. 
Charters have an affirmative obligation under both statutes to provide meaningful and accessible outreach to ensure the fair recruitment of school-age children with disabilities and an equal opportunity for admission and a quality education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), eligible students have a right to free appropriate public education (FAPE) and cannot be excluded from "choice” programs as a result of their disability, nor can they be required to waive services for participation in a charter school.
COPAA recognizes the benefits that high quality charter schools may bring to communities and understands in certain instances, charters have produced innovative and successful instructional models. Yet, the quality of charter schools is quite mixed. There are significant concerns regarding students with disabilities being served by charters, which are predominantly, but not exclusively, located in urban, under-performing districts, and 20 percent of which are operated by charter-school management organizations (CMOs) controlling multiple entities. Charters also continue to struggle to enroll, retain and successfully educate students with disabilities.[i] 

Quick Facts on Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities

  • . Since the first charter school law was enacted in 1991,
    44 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) have enacted charter school statutes. From 2004 to 2014, the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools increased from 2 to 5 percent (0.9 million to 2.7 million). [i] 

  • Students with disabilities represent 10.62% of the student population in charter schools and 12.46% percent in traditional public schools.[ii]

  • Charter schools and traditional public schools suspend students with disabilities at a rate almost twice as high as the average suspension rate for all students (12.28% in charter schools and 11.56% in traditional public schools). This percentage has declined in comparison to the previous two years where charter schools suspended 13.45% students with disabilities and traditional public schools suspended 13.40% students with disabilities.[iii]

  •  Charter schools report facing challenges serving students with severe disabilities due to insufficient resources.[iv]

  •  Although charter schools may be freed from some of the restraints placed on traditional educational institutions, they are not free from the requirements of the IDEA or Section 504.[v]

    [i] National Council on Disability (2018) School Choice Series: Carter Schools and Implications for Students with Disabilities    See: https://ncd.gov/publications/2018/school-choice-report-series

    [ii] Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools, National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, February 2018, Civil Rights Data Collection 2013-2014. See: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52feb326e4b069fc72abb0c8/t/5b399a04352f5378b7d09e07/1530501646250/281797_NCSECS_CRDC_13_14_Full+Report.pdf

    [iii] Ibid.

    [iv] Charter Schools: Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities, GAO-12-543, June, 2012 see: https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-543

    [v] Frequently Asked Questions About the Rights of Children with Disabilities in Charter Schools, U.S. Department of Education, See: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/policy_speced_guid_idea_memosdcltrs_faq-idea-charter-school.pdf





Ø Congress should ensure that any federal legislation must equitably include students with disabilities in the recruitment, enrollment and retention efforts of charter schools receiving federal funds. Such laws must also require:

o the State’s applying entities include in its application an explanation of how it will work to meet the needs of students served, including students with disabilities

o the State’s applying entities provide new assurances that it will provide technical assistance to enroll, to recruit and also to retain traditionally underserved students at rates similar to non-charter public schools

o eligible charter schools abide by all federal laws impacting the educational and civil rights of students with disabilities

o high-quality charter schools to demonstrate student academic achievement and list an increase in graduation rates as an example of how a high charter school might accomplish such achievement.


Ø The U.S. Department of Education must provide technical assistance to states to ensure they can support local educational agencies (LEA) to the fullest extent possible. Research shows that the relationship between the charter school and the LEA as the most important factor affecting a charter school's compliance with IDEA and Section 504 in providing special education and related services.


It is essential that charter schools are held accountable for ensuring access to all students, for providing meaningful teaching and instruction designed to improve educational outcomes that are not limited to test scores but the kind of knowledge and skills all students need to be college and career ready.


Related Resources:

2018 National Council on Disability School Choice Series: Report Charter Schools -- Implications for Students with Disabilities

Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities, Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, 2012

Improving Access and Creating Exceptional Opportunities for Students with Disabilities in Charter Schools, National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, 2013 




Charter Schools

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Policy Letters, Recommendations, Reports
Item Name Posted By Date Posted
Charter Schools and Students w/Disabilities (2012) PDF (411.37 KB)  more ] Administration 12/19/2012
New York State Special Ed Enrollment Anal (2012) PDF (3.88 MB)  more ] Administration 1/22/2013
Civil Rights, Charter Schools (Black, 2012) PDF (632.31 KB)  more ] Administration 1/29/2013
Florida Charter Schools Failing (2011) Link  more ] Administration 1/29/2013
GAO Report: Charters,AdditFederal Attention (2012) PDF (936.01 KB)  more ] Administration 1/29/2013
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