Published Online: February 19, 1997


Spec. Ed. Rules Pose Problems for Charter Schools

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Charter schools, a movement whose mantra is deregulation, have come up against one of the most heavily regulated areas in all of public education: special education. Not surprisingly, the fit is often less than comfortable.

Eric Premack, who often provides charter schools with technical help as the director of the Charter Schools Project at the Institute for Education Reform in Sacramento, Calif., sums it up this way: "Square peg, round hole."

As more and more states move to enact charter school laws, special education has often been treated mostly as an afterthought. No one really has a handle on how many children with disabilities are enrolled in charter schools nationally or how well they are being served.

Many charter school operators have felt overwhelmed, or at least unprepared, in dealing with special education procedures. And with so many questions surfacing, some states and the U.S. Department of Education are scrambling to offer help.

"This should have been on the radar screen much earlier," said Margaret McLaughlin, an associate director of the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Yvette Melendez Thiesfield, a consultant to the Connecticut education department who works on charter school issues, said there is widespread confusion.

"Everyone's scratching their heads about this," she said. "Every charter school conference I attend now has a seminar on special education, but there are never any real answers."

Though they are intended to operate free from most of the bureaucratic constraints of regular public schools, charter schools must grapple with a multitude of state and federal special education laws and regulations. Those rules govern everything from how special education students are identified and evaluated to specific training requirements for the teachers and other professionals who serve them.

Most observers agree that charter schools, just like traditional public schools, must serve disabled students. But beyond that basic principle, the details of how these independent schools must do so are anything but clear.

Many charter schools operate on a shoestring budget and lack the financial and administrative support of a district behind them. As a result, they may be especially vulnerable to costly legal disputes with parents who are well-versed in the rules that protect the rights of children with disabilities.

Question of Access

More than 450 charter schools are now up and running in the 25 states and the District of Columbia that have laws permitting them, and the movement is expected to grow.

Though many reports have concluded that charter schools draw a diverse student body, reliable national figures on special education enrollment in charter schools are not readily available.

Even on a smaller scale, there are conflicting data. Some research shows that charter schools enroll disabled children at rates on a par with traditional public schools in their states or neighboring school districts. Other reports suggest that such children are underrepresented in charter schools.

In Massachusetts' 22 charter schools, 12 percent of the 5,465 students enrolled were identified as needing special education, compared with the statewide average of 17 percent, according to a recent state education department report.

A 1995 Southwest Regional Laboratory report on California charter schools concluded: "There is modest support for the possibility that charter schools are underserving special education students."

And a report released last week on Minnesota charter schools indicated that they have a higher proportion of special education students than students in the districts where those schools are located. ("General Satisfaction With Minn. Charters Documented," This Week's News.)

Skewing the picture are charter schools that explicitly serve students with disabilities, such as the Metro Deaf Charter School in St. Paul, Minn., and the Macomb Academy in Clinton Township, Mich., which targets students with a range of cognitive disabilities. Many other charter schools target "at risk" students.

Because proponents have touted the diversity of charter school enrollment in areas such as race, socioeconomic status, and academic ability, any suggestion that they are less than all-embracing engenders heated debate.

"There's a real reticence to talk about this kind of stuff," said Joseph R. McKinney, an associate professor of education at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., whose work on charter schools and special education has rankled some charter proponents. "A lot of these people are strict ideologues."

Guidance Coming

In interviews with Arizona charter school operators and other research conducted last year, Mr. McKinney found that only 17 of the 46 operating charter schools reported serving disabled children. And, he reports, most charter school administrators did not understand federal and state special education laws and procedures.

His conclusion: Children with disabilities do not have equal access to charter schools.

The federal Education Department has received so many questions on charter schools and special education that the agency plans to issue guidance soon on some of the most common queries.

Among them are: Must every charter school be accessible to students in wheelchairs? Do parents of charter school students relinquish their rights under the federal law that regulates the education of disabled students?

"The nature of the questions being asked gives us a level of concern where we feel we have to give policy guidance," said Thomas Hehir, the director of the department's office of special education programs. "We don't do that lightly."

In light of parental complaints and confusion among charter school educators, states such as Arizona are beefing up their technical assistance on special education: hosting seminars, issuing how-to publications, and becoming more vigilant in reviewing charter applications, said Kathryn A. Lund, Arizona's director of exceptional-student services.

In just two years, roughly 17,000 students have enrolled in about 160 Arizona charter schools--one-third of the nation's total. The state's 1994 charter law is considered the most hands-off in the nation.

In many states, special education experts did not have a hand in crafting the charter school plan before it was made law, said Martha J. Fields, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in Alexandria, Va.

So with charter schools as in other areas of education, "we're in a position of having to go back and point out the oversight and ask that the process be retrofitted to consider children with disabilities," Ms. Fields said.

But many charter school proponents question whether strict adherence to special education rules, with their elaborate classification systems, screenings, and regulation, is necessary.

Learning To Cope

Nowhere was the confusion more evident than at a charter school conference in New York City last month at Teachers College, Columbia University.

While most of the participants sat through sessions on governance, finance, and assessment, a few would-be charter organizers gathered in a drafty classroom for a three-hour seminar on "exceptional education" issues.

"To be honest, we haven't really considered any of this," Helen Hawkins, a charter school organizer from Chicago, said when the session was over. "It just throws a whole new dimension on our budget, our building, and everything."

Ms. Hawkins, who has spent three decades in education, most recently as the principal of an alternative school, has received preliminary approval from the city for a charter school targeting at-risk middle school students.

Later in the day, during a small discussion group, one New Jersey educator offered a sobering view of the current state of affairs. The word on special education, he said, from charter school operators in other states is: "What you do is sit down with the parents and discuss reality and hope they don't sue you."

But educators in states where charter schools are more established have come up with affordable ways to cope. Some schools in California and Massachusetts have formed cooperative agreements, either by sharing specialized staff members with other charter schools or by contracting with neighboring districts for some special education services.

Concerns Remain

At the Boston Renaissance Charter Public School, about 11 percent of the 1,069 students are eligible for special education. When the K-8 school opened in Boston in September 1995, administrators realized they had underestimated the number of special education students. Some parents had not disclosed the fact that their children had disabilities.

"Many people thought, well, if they see this, they'll never let me in the [admissions] lottery. Parents, I think, were fearful," Headmaster Barbara Wager said. "And for the better part of a year we struggled."

Anecdotal reports of charter schools telling parents of disabled children "we don't do special education" have circulated, but the Education Department's Mr. Hehir and others say it is unlikely that disabled children are being widely excluded. But concerns remain about the more subtle ways in which the schools can discourage disabled students.

"It's real clear what to do to make your life easier--and it's immoral," Ms. Wager said. "You could adopt a take-us-or-leave-us attitude, and that's a real danger. ... Do you take the same time in taking the parent of a kid with a special need around the school or not?

"People need to be very aware."

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