What are Charter Schools?
Charters have become a leading alternative to traditional public schools with the flexibility to create more student-focused curricula that caters to the learning styles of students being served yielding more academic and personal success. Each school has a written charter or contract, generally spanning 3-5 years, with the state or local education agency, authorizing them to operate within the district. While charters may be able to offer unique opportunities for some students through new teaching methods, smaller classrooms, and school choice, they are run on small budgets by staff with little to no formal training in special education policy and law. Since the number of students requiring special education services has increased over the past years, there has been a significant increase in the percentages of students who need services at charter schools.
The expansion of charter schools across America is concerning for many special education advocates. When charters admit special education students they tend to be those with the mild disabilities as charters are not equipped to meet the needs of those with extreme disabilities. Although charter schools often run without many of the limitations of state law, the schools are still required to educate students with disabilities under the structures of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA governs the educational rights of children with disabilities in the United States -- requiring all states accepting IDEA funds to provide children with disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that meets their unique needs. Generally, the IDEA dictates the appropriate practices for identifying children with disabilities, creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that spells out the specific services a child will receive and all other procedures for educating children with disabilities.
Studies have shown that the lack of knowledge about special education laws,policy and practice delay charter schools from appropriately serving special education students. Many charter school directors feel unprepared to serve students with disabilities because few charter school operators are actually trained in education administration, leaving them without the necessary knowledge to adhere to the complex requirements of the IDEA.
So, then, what measures should charter schools take to ensure their special education students are adequately prepared to attend and succeed in post secondary institutions? Improving college readinesss for students with disabilities to demonstrate their conceptual and procedural knowledge and skills will take: hiring faculty and staff who are qualified to deliver high-quality; support services intended to meet the needs of students and provide access to general education curriculum; and smart goals that support the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each special education student. Of course, not every student with disabilities will reach the academic standards set forth by schools, but this in no way means that expectations should be lowered or that content presented to special education students should be below grade level. To assist special education students to successfully transition from charter schools, or any school for that matter, to post secondary education requires a culture of high expectations, data-driven professional development, clear procedures, and collaborative teaching. Students receiving special education services can and will succeed in college when surrounded by strong instructional practices and educators who are fully commited to their achievement.
1.Lauren Rhim, Charter School Statutes and Special Education: Policy Answers or Policy Ambiguity?, 41(1) Journal of Special Education, 50, 51 (2007).
2.Mary Estes, Choice for All? “Charter Schools and Students with Special Needs,” 37(4) JOURNAL OF SPECIAL EDUCATION 257, 258 (2004).