Charter Schools and Special Education

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BY DR. MICHAEL BERG

Charter schools are viable options for students with disabilities, just do your homework first and make sure it’s a good choice for your student!

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, over three million students receive their education in approximately 6,900 charter schools across the United States. Roughly eight percent or 240,000 students in public charter schools have disabilities according to a United States Government Accountability Report published in 2012. With more than 300 charter schools opening up in 2016 and enrollment tripling over the past decade, parents of children with special needs are starting to take notice of this other public option for educating their students.

As the founder of a public charter school in Georgia, I am frequently asked questions and for advice by parents of students with special needs who are struggling to find the best model of education that meets the diverse needs of their children. When I ask parents why they are seeking another option for their children, I often hear responses that include, “The traditional public school just does not understand the special needs of my child,” or “I cannot afford private tuition any longer,” or “Homeschooling is just not working out, I was not meant to be a teacher.” Charter schools are a viable alternative for parents who are not satisfied with their children’s current school option. School choice is a good thing, but trying to decide between traditional public schools, private schools, home schooling, and charter schools can be a daunting task.

What are Charter Schools?
Charter schools are tuition-free autonomous public schools of choice that enter into a contract with an authorizing agency. State law dictates which agencies can authorize a charter school. Often the authorizer is the state’s Department of Education. However, there are other authorizing agencies such as individual public school systems and universities. This contract between the charter school and the authorizer allows for flexibility and autonomy in the methodologies of teaching practices that occur in the school. However, in exchange for this flexibility and  autonomy, the charter school must meet specific goals set forth in their contract. If these goals are not met within a specified period of time, the authorizer has the power to close the school. Traditionally, charter schools must demonstrate that they can outperform their surrounding traditional public schools. Accountability levels for charter schools in most states are very high, as they should be!

How do Charter Schools Serve Children with Special Needs?
Many people think that charter schools do not have to accept students with disabilities. This is not true! As public schools of choice, charter schools are required by law to provide special education services to students with disabilities and be in compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Any student entering a charter school with a current special education eligibility will be provided services, accommodations, and modifications as prescribed in the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In addition, charter schools are also held responsible for establishing a Response to Intervention (RTI) program or a Child Find program which serves as a path for identification of students who might be eligible for special education services.

Children with learning disabilities, speech-language impairments, intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional/behavioral disorders, health impairments, and developmental disabilities are all being educated in charter schools across the nation. Charter schools typically have certified special education teachers and paraprofessionals on staff that offer inclusive and separate class services. In addition, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and school psychologists will either be on staff, part-time or full-time, or be contracted out to meet the services in the IEPs of the special education population of the charter school.

So, just like any other public school, charter schools are not allowed to deny admission because of a disability and they are required to provide all prescribed special education services to their students.

Potential Benefits
Charter schools have some potential key benefits for students with disabilities.
Great flexibility coupled with a small student body means that it could be easier to provide accommodations and modifications to students with disabilities. As a matter of fact, a great deal of accommodations and modifications are only prescribed in traditional public schools because of overcrowding and a lack of flexibility in teaching practices. It is not uncommon to find that many accommodations and modifications needed in a traditional public school are not needed to the same extent or at all in a charter school.
The hallmark of a charter school is implementing methodologies that you would not customarily see in traditional schools. These may include arts infusion, classical education, subject specific specializations such as science, literature, or agriculture. Many of these methodologies implement multi-sensory approaches that allow students opportunities to move around and use a hands-on approach to learning rather than sitting at desks most of the day working on paper and pencil type activities. Students with disabilities tend to thrive in this multi-sensory learning environment that is cultivated in quality charter schools.
Most charter schools have waiting lists. Students who do not follow the code of conduct and habitually bully other students are at risk of losing their spot in the school. There is a mindfulness by parents and students that there are many children eagerly waiting to take their spot. Therefore, bullying and other disruptive behaviors that might interfere with the learning and services of students with special needs is typically at a minimum.
Charter schools are characteristically much smaller than traditional public schools. The culture tends to lend to a more inclusive learning environment for children with special needs. It is not uncommon for teachers to know every student’s name in the school, not just the students on their roster. Inclusion of children with special needs in general education classrooms is very high in most charter schools, including children with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities.
Unlike magnet schools and private schools, admission to charter schools is not dependent upon entrance exams, previous academic performance, or auditions. This is advantageous for students with disabilities who do not necessarily perform well on standardized exams and have difficulty meeting the requirements of magnet schools and private schools.

Potential Concerns
While charter schools have many positives, there are also some potential issues that parents of children with disabilities should be aware of.
Most charter schools have flexibility in their hiring practices and may hire teachers who are not certified. Usually these teachers are not core academic teachers, but specialty teachers such as foreign language teachers, fine-arts teachers, home-economics, or business teachers. However, some charter schools may have uncertified academic teachers and this should be of concern to parents. Teachers without the proper pedagogical and practical trainings may not fully understand the academic, social, and emotional needs of children with disabilities.
Charter schools do not generate the same funding as traditional public schools. Therefore, some charter schools struggle with acquiring the necessary resources such as technology, textbooks, and specialized equipment needed for students with special needs. Adapted technology may be at a minimum.
The majority of charter schools do not offer transportation to or from school for any of their students. All parents are responsible for pick up and drop off and this can pose great difficulty for parents of students with physical disabilities who typically use specialized transportation provided by larger public school districts.
Some charter schools open up in older facilities. These older facilities might not be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Parents of students with physical disabilities will need to ensure the school has been appropriately adapted to meet their students’ mobility needs.

Do Your Homework Before Making a Choice!
The continuum of school choice options is growing for parents and their children with disabilities. Parents must surely do their homework before deciding if a particular charter school is the right choice for their students. The following are important steps to take prior to making a decision.
1. Educate yourself on your state’s charter school laws and regulations. They vary from state to state. Visiting your state’s Department of Education (DOE) website is a good place to start.
2. If you find a charter school that you think might be a possible option, set up a meeting with the school’s principal and the school’s director of special programs. Take a tour of the school. Ask enough questions so you have a deep understanding of the charter school’s methodology of teaching and educational practices. Look to see if children with disabilities are assimilated into the culture of the school and are participating in classes and activities with non-disabled peers.
3. Inquire about the school’s special education staff. The administrator in charge of special education programs should be experienced with special education law, eligibility requirements, and local, state, and federal regulations. The special education teachers should be highly qualified and certified by the state in which they are teaching. Find out how often occupational therapists, speech pathologists, psychologists, and other support staff are available at the school. Most charter schools do not have the need for full-time support staff, but you want to ensure the support staff is there to meet the requirements in your student’s IEP.
4. Most charter schools use a lottery system for entrance as there are usually many more students vying for a seat than what is available. If a charter school has a large amount of seats available, that could be a possible sign that parents are not banging down the door for their students to get in and something is wrong.
5. Include your student in the choice. Ultimately, parents need to decide which educational option is best for their children. However, try to include your student in the process and allow them some voice in the decision.

Our home addresses do not determine which pediatrician or dentist we use to treat our children. Nor do our home addresses decide where we shop for our children’s clothes or shoes. We have choice in these services and products. Therefore, why should the number on our mailboxes dictate where we can have our children educated? When it comes to a free and appropriate public education, many parents are no longer bound by the numbers on their mailboxes and have the option to send their children to public charter schools. Choice is good! However, with choice comes decision making and when making decisions as essential as your child’s education, it should not be taken lightly. Charter schools are viable options for students with disabilities, just do your homework first and make sure it’s a good CHOICE for your student!•

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Michael Berg is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Augusta University in Augusta, Georgia. He earned his Ed.D in School Improvement with a concentration in Special Education from the University of West Georgia. He is a Nationally Board Certified Special Education Teacher and has taught students with mild and moderate disabilities for 24 years at the elementary and middle school levels. In addition, he is the founder of the School for Arts Infused Learning (SAIL), a public charter school in Evans, Georgia.


References
1. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2017). Estimated Charter Public School Enrollment 2016-17. Retrieved from http://www.publiccharters.org
2. United States Government Accountability Office. (2012). Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov