Blog:  The Inside Track

Charter Schools and Special Education: A Fresh Look at Data and Questions to Ask

The Inside Track blog post by Lauren Morando Rhim
Mar 28, 2016

Mother asking counselor of charter school about special education for her child

Have you ever thought of sending your child with learning or attention issues to a public charter school? If so, you’re not alone.

There are charter schools in 43 states. More than 250,000 students who are eligible for special education attend these schools. That’s a huge number. And most of these students have learning and attention issues.

But there are a lot of myths about charters. For instance, some people wrongly believe that charters don’t have to provide special education. That’s not correct.

A charter school is a public school. Like other public schools, charters must provide special education and accommodations to students who qualify. It’s illegal for them to turn away children who need services. And they can’t discourage children with learning and attention issues like ADHD from attending. This illegal practice is known as “counseling out.”

There’s also a lack of good information about charters. But my colleagues and I at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools are trying to change that.

In 2015, we looked at special education data from charters across the country. Here’s some of what we found:

  • On average, charters have fewer students receiving special education services than traditional public schools. In charter schools, 10.4 percent of students get special education services. That compares to 12.6 percent of students in traditional schools.
  • Students who receive special education services in charters spend a lot of time in general education classrooms. In charters, 84 percent of special education students were in the general education classroom for 80 percent or more of the day. Only 67 percent of students in traditional schools spent that much time in general education classrooms.
  • Charters and traditional schools are about equally likely to suspend kids who receive special education services, in both cases at a rate higher than for other students. However, charters expel special education students at a slightly higher rate than traditional schools.
  • There are 115 specialized charter schools in the United States. These are schools that focus on students who receive special education services.

(If you want to read more of our findings, you can download a PDF of our full report.)

Deciding if a charter school is right for your child is a big decision. But our research suggests that asking some key questions can help you decide. Here are some things to think about if you’re considering a charter school for your child.

Look at the school’s website to read their mission and vision statements. Some charters focus on specific interests or programs. The more you know about the school’s approach, the more informed your decision will be:

  • What’s the charter’s mission, or focus? For instance, it may be performing arts, science or foreign language. Do any of these interest your child?
  • What’s the school’s vision, or approach to education? For instance, is it Montessori or project-based learning? Is this approach right for your child?
  • Are special education services and supports clearly mentioned in the mission and vision statements?
  • What kinds of services and supports will your child be able to get?

Review the school’s report card from your state. States usually require charters to provide school “report cards” for parents. This data can help you decide if a school is right for your child. For instance:

  • How are the students are doing in reading and math?
  • How are different groups of students performing in the charter? For instance, students living in poverty versus English language learners? What about students receiving special education services?

Understand where your child will be taught throughout the school day:

  • Will he be in a general education inclusion classroom with other children? Or in a separate classroom with only children eligible for special education?
  • If he’ll be in a separate classroom, when will he interact with his peers of the same age or grade? For example, will he see them at lunch, or in art or physical education class?

Learn about the school’s discipline policies. Students with learning and attention issues are at greater risk of being suspended or expelled. So it’s important to find out how the charter will react to your child’s behavior:

  • How does the school manage behavior issues? What will the school do if your child breaks one of the rules?
  • Does the school restrain or seclude students for any behavior issues? Or does it use a proactive approach to discipline like PBIS?

Understand how the school recruits and serves its students. Even specialized schools—for example, those focused on learning and attention issues—may differ in their approaches. Understanding how the school attracts, teaches and supports students will help you decide if it’s a good fit.

  • Does the school have expertise in teaching students with a particular learning or attention issue?
  • If so, what does this mean for your child’s instruction and services?

There are lots of reasons you may be exploring different types of schools for your child. Before you make a decision about a charter, make sure you ask the right questions.

Learn more about what to look for when choosing a school for your child. And discover how a Brooklyn charter school is focusing on personalized learning.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Lauren Morando Rhim

Lauren Morando Rhim is a researcher, consultant and advocate for children. She specializes in education reform issues.

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