Special Education in California


Charter schools are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities and other unique challenges.

Related Resources
- Charter Schools and Special Education: FAQs for Families
- Explore resources for members, including template documents and checklists for members

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The Challenge

It is often stated that charter schools do not serve the same population of students with unique learning needs - such as students with disabilities - as their traditional public school counterparts. Since the inception of the charter school movement, this claim has taken a variety of forms. Some say that charter schools are unwilling to serve students with disabilities, often accusing charters of "counseling out" or referring students with disabilities to other schools. Others acknowledge that charter schools serve students with mild to moderate disabilities, but declare that charters are unwilling or unprepared to serve students with the most severe needs. Still, some simply allege that charter schools serve a smaller population of students with disabilities than traditional public schools.

While it is true that the special education demographic in charter schools may differ from that of traditional public schools, charter schools understand their responsibility to serve all students and are committed to serving students with exceptional needs. In fact, 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.

See how one school, Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy, is serving a very special student with exceptional needs:

CCSA's Role in Addressing the Challenge

While charter schools are committing to providing innovative and high-quality services to students with unique needs, they have faced significant challenges enrolling, serving, and demonstrating outcomes for students with disabilities. Specifically, barriers are presented by state and local special education governance structures, statewide funding systems, local service delivery arrangements, and data-tracking limitations.

In order to accomplish major change in the area of special education and strengthen the charter school movement, CCSA must overcome the barriers that have previously inhibited charter schools in the area of special education.

To accomplish this goal, CCSA continues to work intensively with members to solve special education challenges. CCSA's Special Education mission is to empower charter schools to provide high quality and compliant special education services to an increased number and broader range of students with exceptional needs, by building a statewide infrastructure of resources that supports the flexible and autonomous nature of charter schools.

Target Areas

In order to accomplish this mission, CCSA is targeting four areas that will bring about the greatest impact:

  • Ensuring that charter schools have the infrastructure - including information, services and financial resources - necessary to increase the range of service options available to students with special needs.
  • Advocating for SELPA and authorizer arrangements that provide the flexibility and autonomy necessary to better serve students.
  • Improving access to comprehensive, accurate, and actionable data necessary to understand the scope and quality of services provided to students with unique needs in charter schools.
  • Advocating on both State and National levels to increase awareness of the successes that the charter setting offers to students from unique populations.

Overall Goals

Through these reform and advocacy efforts, and in partnership with the leadership and ingenuity of our members, CCSA will:

  • Increase the number of students with special needs being served in charter schools, measured by the total percentage of growth in special education students served by charter schools; and
  • Equip schools to serve a broader range of students with unique needs by offering an increased continuum of placement and service options.

CCSA Successes in Special Education

Through the advocacy efforts of its Special Education Team, CCSA has made tremendous strides in overcoming the barriers that have traditionally inhibited charter schools in the area of special education. Key Highlights Include:

New Report: "Special Education in California Charter Schools: All Students Welcome"

CCSA's report challenges the notion that charter public schools serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.The report highlights current data on the enrollment of students with disabilities in the most autonomous arrangements. Read the report.

Increased SELPA Options for Charter Schools Seeking LEA Status

By collaborating with a number of SELPAs across the state, we have seen a positive shift in the relationships between charter schools and SELPAs. Included in this change is the increased willingness of SELPAs to admit charters as LEAs for special education purposes. There are at least 25 SELPAs across the state that now serve or are prepared to accept charter schools as LEA members, including 4 charter only SELPAs.

Reorganization of the Los Angeles Unified School District SELPA

Working in a new spirit of collaboration and with a common goal of creating improved special education arrangements options for charter schools authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District, CCSA Association staff and LAUSD Special Education administrators worked together to develop a mutually beneficial solution for special education governance, funding, and service delivery.

The result was a plan for reorganization of the SELPA that would create a charter operated entity within the existing LAUSD SELPA that provides charter schools with the full autonomy and accountability necessary to serve an increased number and broader range of students with special needs. The new entity became operational on July 1, 2011 with 48 participating charter schools. In addition, the reorganization created two new, improved options for schools who wish to remain schools of the district for purposes of special education.

New Charter School Special Education Consortia

In an effort to ensure that charter schools have the resources and expertise necessary to provide a full range of high-quality services to students with disabilities, the Association is facilitating regional consortiums of charter schools that will collaborate to share expertise, resources, and services for special education. Two regional groups have committed to forming a joint powers authority for purposes of formal collaboration around special education - one in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in San Diego County.

Broad Scale Special Education Resources and Trainings

To ensure that all charter schools have the information and resources necessary to offer high quality special education services, the Association continues to provide a breadth of online resources, training workshops, and technical assistance around all aspects of special education.

California Special Education Facts and Figures

Numerous local and national studies have concluded that charter schools serve a lower proportion of students with disabilities than traditional schools. However, simply considering the statewide difference between charter and district special education enrollment is not only uninformative, but also damaging, as it prevents us from understanding and removing structural barriers to flexibility, innovation, and better outcomes for students regardless of their zip code, family income, or disability.

There are many factors affecting enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools, including parental choice and student need, location, capacity, authority over placement decisions, intervention systems, and access to special education funding, to name a few. However, our research shows that by far the most significant factor is whether or not a charter school has the autonomy and flexibility to develop and run their own special education programs.

  • When operating as a school of their district, a charter school does not make placement decisions for students with disabilities, and the district is ultimately responsible for providing services to these students. Unfortunately, due to financial and logistical considerations, the placement offered by the district is often back at the same traditional school site which the family had opted out of, thereby denying them an option to attend their school of choice and contributing to the lower enrollment of students with disabilities in charters. In 2012-13, about 70% of all charter schools in California operated under this arrangement.

Special Ed Facts and Figures

When operating autonomously (as a Local Education Agency or in an "LEA-like" arrangement) for special education, a charter school is fully responsible for placement decisions and provision of services to students with special needs. As evident from the chart, this flexibility is relatively new. Only 3 years ago, charters operating autonomously for special education comprised about 10% of all charter schools in the state. Today, this number has tripled, and about 30% of all charter schools have achieved LEA or LEA-like status. With greater autonomy came an increase in the proportion of students with disabilities served.

In 2011-12, the restructure of Los Angeles Unified Special Education Local Plan Area has created Option 3--an LEA-like option for charter schools granting them similar autonomy and access to special education funding available to LEAs. Since then, Option 3 schools increased the percentage of students with disabilities they serve by 22% (from 8.08% to 9.89%). Overall student enrollment in Option 3 schools has increased by 40%, from 29,086 to 40,809 students. At the same time, the number of students with disabilities has grown by 54%, from 2,620 to 4,037 students. Enrollment of students with lower-incidence disabilities increased by 36%.

More research is needed to fully understand factors affecting special education enrollment in charter schools; however, the available data shows that the percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools increases when charter schools are granted greater autonomy and flexibility over special education service delivery, as well as direct access to special education funding to support service delivery on the charter campus.

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