In recent years, the number of charter schools operating in the state of Georgia has nearly doubled. Many of the charter schools have evolved during a time of educational marketability, depressed school budgets, increasing class sizes, and increased accountability tied to high-stakes testing. As a result of these factors, charter schools have been opening their doors year after year, serving students within the city and suburbs of Atlanta, by promising unique programs, smaller class sizes, and increased student achievement.
Since their inception, many parents have gravitated to these schools due to increased frustration and disappointment from traditional public schools. Many parents purport that traditional public schools lack the creativity, autonomy, and wherewithal to enhance achievement for their children. Furthermore, considering that charter schools have freedom from many of the local and state regulations that apply to traditional public schools, parents feel that charter schools are better equipped to meet the needs of their children- especially parents of students with disabilities. Due to these circumstances, the number of parents of students with disabilities seeking charter schools has grown in recent years.
Although the number of students with special needs turning to charter schools has increased, charter schools tend to enroll fewer special education students than traditional public schools. This imbalance has caused many to question the ability of charter schools to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. Many educational researchers report that charter schools are not faring well when it comes to this subgroup of students. They report many charter schools lack the resources, funds, and personnel needed to appropriately meet the needs of students with disabilities as outlined by federal guidelines.
In efforts to understand what research reveals about student with disabilities in charter schools, the U.S. Department of Education funded two studies to examine how students with disabilities perform in charter schools. The first study, Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities: A National Study, found that (Fiore et al., 2000):
– The enrollment of students with more significant disabilities in charter schools was relatively rare.
– Staff at some charter schools sometimes “counseled” parents of students with disabilities against enrolling in the charter school.
– Most charter schools had little data to verify the impact of their program on students with disabilities.
– Some barriers included lack of adequate funding, lack of extracurricular activities, and transportation.
The second study, Project SEARCH: Special Education As Requirements in Charter Schools (2001) found that:
– Charter school application often provided little more than reassurances that special education services would be provided; they generally did not require demonstration of the capacity to meet those obligations.
– Most charter school liaisons had limited understanding of federal, state, and local sources of special education funding and ways to access resources
– Charter schools often had difficulty locating appropriate special education teachers and related services personnel.
– In many cases, the philosophy of charter schools conflicted with special education requirements.
Considering these implications, it is imperative that parents research charter schools thoroughly before enrolling their children with disabilities. Although charter schools are free from many local and state regulations, they must abide by all federal laws and regulations including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They also must accept every student who applies and ensure that all students, regardless of ability, show improvement.