Charter Schools and IEPs-Special Education

Charter Schools and IEPs or Special Education is a very misunderstood concept, even though the law is pretty clear. Some of the confusion comes from the charter schools themselves. They send a consistent message based on previous practice, and not necessarily on what is right or legal.

This post about Charter Schools and Special Education has been in my head a while, but I’ve neglected to put it together for several reasons. One is that whenever I post anything that says anything negative about charter schools, I get a ton of e-mail. And if it’s not email, I get a bunch of e-mail and comments basically telling me that I am wrong.

charter schools special education

And that their child with an IEP is in a charter school and things are just fabulous.

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So since their situation is spectacular, there can’t possibly be any truth to what I’m saying.

So I’ll just say this now: If your child with an IEP is in a charter school and things are going well for you, congrats. No, really, congrats. My ultimate dream is that every child is having his/her needs met. So I am truly happy that yours is.

However, the data is very clear. By and large, Charter Schools only accept minimally disabled students. The most prevalent disability category in charter schools is SLD and Speech/Language–the two least expensive categories. And don’t even get me started on Charter School results (or lack thereof) which I won’t get into because that’s not what this post is about.

iep students in charter schools
This is from the US Dept of Ed. Other health impairments include having limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems such as a heart condition, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, nephritis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, leukemia, or diabetes.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) database, retrieved December 27, 2018, from; and National Center for Education Statistics, National Elementary and Secondary Enrollment Projection Model, 1972 through 2028. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 204.30.

Charter Schools and Special Education

Your one anecdote of a satisfactory experience does not negate the many other families who have been discriminated against by a charter school.

Because here’s the thing: All the time, across this nation, charter schools discriminate against children based upon their disability. And my job here on this blog is to help parents navigate the IEP process to get what their child needs.

Here is the Guidance from the US Department of Education:

Section 504 Charter School Guidance | IDEA Charter School Guidance | Know Your Rights in Charter Schools

Yes, I know some public school personnel do this as well, I get that. But we live in a country where charter schools drain our public districts of funding. They are held less accountable and because they are “schools of choice” they get away with it more.

To be fair, I address discrimination and unfair behavior by the public schools in this blog all.the.time.

And yet, when I criticize public districts for the way they handle some situations, there is no pitch fork mob. Honestly, Special Education Advocates just wish that their jobs would become obsolete and not needed. Really, we do!

Charter Schools: Application Lottery Process

Charter schools often have an “application process” rather than an “enrollment process” and some are sold and marketed as a “tuition-free school of choice” and other similar phrases. Therefore, sometimes parents assume that they are private schools. They are not.

Charter Schools need to follow the same federal laws as your public schools. The same applies to cyber charters. And this is what grinds my gears-that they get to use tax dollars but they don’t have to accept everyone. And it’s all perfectly legal!

This morning, I got two more messages in the Facebook group we have:

charter school discrimination
charter school discrimination

So there you go, two more instances where a parent has been told that their child must either return to their home district or pay for their own para! Imagine that! Hiring your own staff.

Rather than give these moms a few quick tips on what to do, I decided to take the bull by the horns and do this long overdue post.

Special Education in Charter Schools

Here are steps you can take if your child with disabilities has been discriminated against by a charter school. This also includes bullying of parents.

The first thing I did was to contact a Special Education Attorney who I am friends with. This is his response.

Hi Lisa,

The law is clear that charters cannot discriminate in any way that is illegal for a school district.

IDEA applies in the same way to charter schools.

That is so outrageous and Iā€™d be interested in talking with those parents.

Ok, now I felt validated (because honestly, I hear these stories so often that I start to doubt my own knowledge and sanity).

So I poked around the internet some more and found this:

Charter Schools and kids with disabilities-That is a great little booklet that you can download.

Ok, so now that we’ve all read the law several different times over, it’s pretty clear, right? So what do you do? (Please note, I am speaking about disabilities here, but any type of discrimination of a protected class is illegal.)

Before you start:

Before I begin, I feel I must tell you, even though you are in the right and on the side of the law, you might be met with resistance, more discrimination, and more bullying.

For example, one time I knew of a student in a charter school, mom and attorney pushed for the Charter to meet his needs. One of many incidents was the school personnel telling ALL the kids, “Sorry kids! No field trips this year because of Anonymous Student. His special needs took all our money.

Except they named him. Yes, really.

Sure, you can fight back on IEP retaliation, but the damage was done. I’m all for fighting the good fight. But it’s a lot to consider and there is no shame in not wanting to put your family through this (which is why they get away with it…sigh).

No matter which path you take, even if you prevail, your child still may not be welcomed with open arms. He/she may still be treated with disdain and resentment.

What to do if your child has been discriminated against by a charter school.

I’m going to break this down into several paths you can take. But first, a first step that every parent must do-DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. If someone says something to you in person or on the phone, follow up with an email.

“Dear so-and-so, I just wanted to clarify what you said today. It is my understanding that….(and recount the conversation).” If they do not refute it, it stands as truth (in eyes of the law).

Whether you have been blatantly told that “Your child’s needs cannot be met here” or you feel that there is a pattern of bullying and discrimination, you need to start your paper trail of incidents that happen.

You can also force them into documentation because at some point they will have to present you with an IEP and NOREP/PWN that would either be inappropriate or recommend a change of placement. I would try my best to get them to document specifically which needs they are saying they cannot/will not meet.

Now, you have some documentation, you have two options. Stay and fight, or do what the charter school wishes and return to your home district. There are many valid reasons to do both.

Choosing to go back to the home district:

  • The child has siblings and/or friends there
  • you do not have the energy or resources to fight the fight (path of least resistance)
  • do not want your child in a school where you (likely) may have constant battles to get him/her what they need
  • why would you want your child in a school that truly does not want him/her?
  • Even if you choose this option, please consider a few options below, such as notifying legislators why “you felt you had no choice but to return to my home district” and tell them what is going on. They need to know.

Choosing to fight the battle with the charter school:

  • because it’s the law and they have to accommodate him
  • help the greater good, clear path for next child
  • child has siblings and/or friends there
  • not happy with home district, like the mission of this school

Once you make your choice, there are more options. Of course, returning to your home district is an option and that’s pretty easy to implement. Withdraw from one, enroll in another, done! But if you choose to stay and fight the fight, there are a few things you can do and I am going to list them in no particular order.

Action Steps for Parents

  • Call your State’s Disability Protection and Advocacy Agency, ask if they have people who assist with education issues. Explain to them what has happened. Follow their recommendations.
  • Call your State’s Department of Education, explain your situation, ask for their assistance.
  • Find and call a Special Education Attorney and tell your story. You may or may not be able to find one that will do this pro bono. If you know of other families who have had similar experiences, ask them if they are willing to speak up and do a class action suit.
  • Document your incidents. Compose a letter to your Charter School CEO and explain what has happened. Remind them that IDEA applies to charters and ask what they are going to do to remedy the situation. If you’re feeling brave, attend a school board meeting. Ask them ahead of time to be put on the agenda. (Keep in mind, that unlike Traditional Public Schools, Charters get to pick their board members. They are not elected.)
  • Call your Office of Civil Rights or visit their website and consider filing a claim for ‘denial of FAPE.
  • Research online and see who granted the charter to the school (Varies from state to state). Write to that agency/office and tell them what has happened.
  • Research online about your state government and in particular, your State House and State Senate education committees. Write to the chairs of those committees as well as your personal legislators (based on where you live) and tell them what happened. The same letter can be sent to all, you don’t need to keep rewriting it.
  • Do the same for your Federal legislators–you have 3: a Congressman/Congresswoman, and two Senators. Look up the House Education Committee and the Senate HELP committee. Contact those committee chairs as well as your personal legislators. School choice is a hot topic right now and it is important that they know this. (side note: and school choice, as it stands right now, discriminates against our kids, which is why I do not support it)
  • Call your local/regional offices of both your Senators and your Congress Rep. Explain to them what happened, point out that they are in violation of IDEA and 504, and ask what they can do.

No matter what you choose to do, no matter how determined you are, find a support group. Whether that be a close group of friends and family who are local or a Facebook group, you’re going to want people to proofread your letters and give you support along the way.

Good luck, Moms and Dads, and keep us posted.

Author’s note: this post was originally written in 2015 but is periodically updated to check links.

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