Charter Schools and Special Education: FAQs for Families

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This information is also available in Spanish.

Charter schools are public schools of choice: parents select the school their child attends. Families and community members are welcomed in charter schools and are treated as partners in their child's education. As public schools, charter schools are required to enroll and serve students with disabilities in the same manner as traditional public schools. Because charter schools are designed to offer innovative educational strategies, they are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities and other unique challenges.

Do charter schools serve students with special needs?

Yes. Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools that are open to all students. Like all public schools, charter schools understand their responsibility to serve all students, and charter schools are committed to serving students with exceptional needs. In fact, because charter schools are designed to have more flexibility than traditional public schools, they are uniquely situated to provide innovative, high-quality educational services to students with unique learning needs.

What is special education?

Special education is defined as instruction that is specially designed to meet your child's unique needs at no cost to the parents by adapting the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction. This includes addressing the needs of your child based on his or her disability and ensure he or she can meet the educational standards that apply to all children within the jurisdiction of the school system.

Special education can include physical education and may be conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings.

What laws protect the rights of students with disabilities? Do these laws apply to charter schools?

Two important laws that protect the rights of students are the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Both of these laws apply to all children with disabilities regardless of whether they receive their education at a traditional district school or a charter public school.

What is IDEA?

The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is a federal law that guarantees all children with disabilities to have access to a "free appropriate public education," often referred to by its initials - FAPE - that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education.

According to IDEA's definition, a child with disability is found to have one or more of the following disabilities: intellectual disability; a hearing impairment, including deafness; a speech or language impairment; a visual impairment, including blindness; a serious emotional disturbance; an orthopedic impairment; autism; traumatic brain injury; other health impairment; a specific learning disability; deaf-blindness; or multiple disabilities.

What is a free appropriate public education (FAPE)?

In IDEA, a free appropriate public education (FAPE) means special education and related services that at provided to children and youth with disabilities at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge. This includes preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the state involved and provided in keeping with an individualized education program (IEP) that meets the requirements of IDEA.

What is Section 504?

Section 504 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Section 504 ensures that children with a disabilities have equal access to education and requires schools to provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) to each qualified student with a disability, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability.

Does a medical illness automatically qualify my child for Section 504?

No. A medical diagnosis of an illness does not automatically qualify a student for services under Section 504.

What should I do if my child is struggling at school? Who should I talk to?

If you suspect that your child may have a disability, don't wait. Gather as much information about learning disabilities as possible. Write down what you know about your child's struggle with learning, request that their teachers and other school personnel do the same, and come together and compare notes and discuss next steps.

My child currently attends a charter school and doesn't have an IEP. How can I request an assessment for my child?

  1. Contact your local school administrator (for example, the principal or special education program consultant).
  2. Outline your areas of concern about your child's suspected disability and request an "evaluation" or "assessment."

Follow-up with a written, dated request in order to document timelines. Once the school has received your written request for assessment, the assessment process must begin.

The process is basically the same in both charter and district schools. There are 13 qualifying categories defined in federal code - each has specific requirements. If a student is tested and qualifies for services, an IEP team is formed and responsible for coming up with a plan to make sure that student can access the curriculum at his or her level.

Ultimately, your local school district has an obligation to "identify, locate and evaluate" all children with disabilities who may be eligible for special education who live within the district boundaries - not only those attending district schools, but all those who are attending charter public schools, private schools or homeschool.

How long will I have to wait for my child's assessment?

Under state law, your school district must give you an assessment plan within 15 days of their receipt of your written referral for special education services.

What if the school or district refuses to assess my child following my written request for assessment?

You have the right to challenge that refusal by filing a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education's (CDE) Complaint Management and Mediation Unit or you can request a Due Process Hearing.

Is the parent's consent required for the evaluation?

Under IDEA, it is required to fully evaluate any child who may need special education services in all areas related to the suspected disability. Before the school does so, and before providing or changing special education service, it must notify you in writing. For the first evaluation and placement, schools must also obtain parental consent.

Can I expect comparable special education services in a charter school?

Created as an alternative to traditional public schools, charter schools are designed to offer innovative educational strategies. Unique to charter schools is the flexibility to truly individualize the educational program, or, when appropriate, create specialized programs at the charter school site. Depending on a student's individual needs, offering appropriate special education services may also result in the charter school working with a district program, a non-public school or agency, or another charter school, to provide a level or type of service that is not available at the individual charter school site.

Similar to the process for serving students in a traditional district school, the IEP team makes a determination for the best option based on the needs of the student. Depending on the charter school and the unique needs of the student, these services may be similar to what is offered at a traditional school, or they may be different. In any case, charter schools are committed to providing quality and compliant special education services that are tailored to students' unique needs.

Understanding the Individualized Education Program (IEP) Process

What is an IEP?

IEP stands for Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a written document that has been designed to describe the educational plan to meet that child's unique needs.

What type of information is included in an IEP?

The IEP describes how the student learns, how the student best demonstrates that learning and what teachers and services providers will do to help the student learn more effectively.

What is the purpose for the IEP?

The purpose of the IEP is to ensure that the child, school staff and parents know what the educational program will be for the year. The IEP must be designed to provide the child with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Who attends the IEP meetings?

The IEP meeting is attended by members of the Child Study Team, which usually includes a parent, school administrator, general education teacher, evaluation personnel, and the child if the IEP team will be talking about how to prepare your child for life after high school.

As a parent, you have a right to be notified in advance and to change the date if necessary. You are the expert on your child, and are therefore the most essential member of the team.

How often is the IEP reviewed?

The IEP must be reviewed at least once every 12 months and revised as necessary.

What happens at the IEP meetings?

At the IEP meeting the team will develop, review, and/or revise the IEP document. Some of the discussion topics to be included in the meeting are: your child's strengths, your concerns for enhancing your child's education; the results of the most recent evaluation of your child; and your child's academic, developmental, and functional needs.

What happens after the IEP meeting?

  1. Ask for a copy of the final IEP document. Review it to ensure you understand the content.
  2. You may want to schedule a follow-up meeting after a month or six weeks so you can monitor your child's progress. If you feel that the IEP needs to be changed, you can request an IEP meeting.
  3. Review the IEP throughout the year to make sure your child accomplishes goals and objectives outlined in the plan.

If my child has an IEP, can I enroll him/her in a charter school?

Yes. Charter schools are open to all students, including those with special needs. If you are interested in enrolling in a charter school, check with the school about the application and enrollment process. Generally, the first step is to turn in a very simple application form. Under state law, if a charter school receive more applications than it has spaces available, the school must hold a blind lottery. A child with an IEP has the right to participate in the lottery or drawing in the same manner as other students. Some schools may request information about your child's IEP at the time of enrollment in order for the school to plan how they will meet your child's needs; however, a school may not refuse to enroll your child based on the existence or contents of the IEP.

Who do I talk to if I have a disagreement with the services?

If you are unhappy with the special education services being offered at your charter school, start by contacting the school staff or administrators. Your charter school is committed to ensuring that all students receive quality and compliant special education services, and will make sure that you are confident that the services your child is receiving are appropriate to meet his or her needs.

Who regulates charter schools?

Charter schools are part of our public school system under the California Department of Education. They also have oversight from their local authorizer, usually the local school district, sometimes the county office of education.

Parents' Rights under Section 504

  • Have your child take part in, and receive benefit from, public education without discrimination based on disability.
  • Have school advise you of your rights under federal disability law.
  • Receive notice and examine records with respect to the identification, evaluation, and placement of your child.
  • Have your child receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that provides education benefit. This includes the right to be educated with other nondisabled children to the greatest extent possible. It also includes the right to have the school make reasonable accommodations to allow your student an equal opportunity to participate in school related activities.
  • Have evaluation, educational and placement decisions made based upon a variety of information sources, and by individuals who know your child, the disability, the evaluation data and placement option.
  • Request a due process hearing and/or the assistance of a mediator to help resolve issues with the school's decisions.

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