Published Online: February 19, 1997

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Charter School Laws Are All Over the Map On Disabled Students

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Some charter school laws specifically address students with disabilities; others do not. Some include general statements that call for schools to obey federal and state special education and antidiscrimination rules.

But in practice, things get messy in a hurry.

For example, states such as Arizona and Michigan allow charter schools to hire uncertified teachers. But state special education rules often require that disabled students be served by teachers or others with specific credentials.

In some states, charters are autonomous entities, essentially functioning as their own school district; in other states, charters are part of an existing school district. That distinction is often critical in figuring out what charter schools are responsible for under special education rules.

Ironically, states that deliberately allowed their charter schools to be autonomous entities so they would be subject to less regulation may in fact have placed a greater burden on them, said Jay P. Heubert, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University's graduate school of education.

In those states, he said, the individual charter schools may be wholly responsible for evaluating, monitoring, and tracking special education students--tasks that ordinarily would be taken care of by the district.

"These are issues lawyers and schools face all the time," Mr. Heubert said: "What happens when you apply a new entity onto pre-existing law?"

Charter schools, he pointed out, don't fit neatly into pre-existing categories. "People just didn't sit down and think it through. Most people did not anticipate these issues."

But Ted Kolderie, a charter school analyst and proponent in St. Paul, Minn., says there's nothing wrong with that.

"Public policy doesn't have to solve everything, and particularly you don't have to write it all in law or regulation," Mr. Kolderie said. "It's OK to just leave it to people to work out in a common-sense way, and I think that's the situation with special ed."

And, he said, compliance with existing special education rules does not always bring good educational results.

Legal Layers

Children with disabilities are covered by several major federal laws, including the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which calls for students to receive a "free, appropriate, public education" tailored to their individual needs; the Americans With Disabilities Act; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

In addition, states have their own requirements for special education and school funding, most of which were on the books long before charter schools ever opened their doors. The intersection of all these rules can make for confusion.

And, given that many traditional public schools continue to struggle with special education more than 20 years after the landmark IDEA became law, the fact that charter schools face confusion is no surprise, experts say.

In general, the IDEA and many state laws place much of the responsibility for special education on school districts, Mr. Heubert said.

Autonomous charter schools, therefore, may have to assume many of the functions of rural, one-school districts, which often use regional cooperatives or form other arrangements to serve their special education students, Mr. Heubert said. But unlike a traditional school district, a charter school cannot levy taxes.

"Special ed is definitely in the top 10 concerns" of charter schools, said Sue Steelman Bragato, the executive director of the California Network of Educational Charters, a nonprofit group based in San Carlos, Calif. "At this point, without some more guidance from our education department and the U.S. Education Department, it's really difficult to define what charters have to do as opposed to what they are doing [now]."

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