Special Education

The U.S. Congress has passed a series of laws describing how public schools – including charter public schools – must work with students whose academic needs qualify them for special education services. P. L. 94-142 (Education of the Handicapped Act of 1975, since renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) guarantees that a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) is made available to students with disabilities and provides funding to assist states to implement its requirements. In thinking about working with children with special needs, we urge those creating charter schools to consider these points:

  • Children with special needs have a right to attend the school you are creating, every bit as much as any other student. Under state and federal law, Minnesota charter schools must be open to all kinds of students, including those with special needs.

  • While Minnesota charter law provides waivers from many state rules and regulations for charter schools, the requirement to use federally developed standards in special education has NOT been waived.

  • By far the single most valuable special education resource for Minnesota charter schools that we identified in preparing this handbook is the Minnesota Charter Schools Special Education Handbook, produced by the Minnesota Special Education Project (http://www.mncharterschools.org/tech_specialed.htm). Anyone planning to create a charter school in Minnesota should obtain a copy of this document. We will not replicate this document here, because it is so clear, comprehensive and well done.

  • Minnesota charter schools must have a licensed full or part time special education director, even if the school does not think it will, or has enrolled, students with special needs. This is in part because all public schools, including charter schools, are required to have certain materials on hand and be ready to assess enrolling students to gauge their eligibility for special education services.

  • Schools must have access to people who speak a student’s language (whatever that language may be) involved in the assessment of students who may be eligible for special education services. A variety of studies find that some students are classified as disabled because school staff did not understand their language, not because the youngster actually had a disability. Providing services for students who are classified as English Language Learners – that is, students whose first language is not English – is a different process than that for students with a disability. It may be that a student who does not speak English also has a qualifying disability. Charter schools must assess students carefully to determine the reasons for a student’s possible difficulties in the classroom.

  • Sometimes students have been classified as needing special education services in traditional schools, but a new diagnosis at a charter or alternative school finds that they do not need these services.

    • We are NOT suggesting that every youngster classified as “special ed” will no longer need services if the student transfers to a different school. Some charter and alternative schools have found that students classified as emotionally disabled due to disruptive behavior in larger schools, behaved far better and no longer needed special services in smaller, more personalized charter or alternative school. Some charters have found that students classified as “attention deficit disorder” and were prescribed medication to “calm them down,” did fine without medication at a charter school that permitted students greater freedom than a traditional environment. We are not saying that all, or even a majority, of students classified by district schools as requiring special education services will no longer need those services when they transfer to charter schools. There are cases, however, when this situation occurs.

  • Special education is something that every charter school has to do well. Failure to comply with special education rules, procedures, and policies can result in very strong penalties for a school including, but not limited to, lawsuits, other legal action, and termination of the school’s charter. Complying with special education rules and regulations is NOT an option – it is a requirement.

A brief overview of special education responsibilities for Minnesota charter schools:

  • Child Study, or Child Find: Schools are expected to have a procedure in place allowing a student’s parents or teachers to refer him/her for further study to determine special education eligibility.

  • Evaluation: Federal law lays out a process by which a team evaluation is carried out to determine if a student is eligible for service.

  • Individual Education Plan (IEP): A school must, in cooperation with the eligible student’s family, develop and monitor a plan by which the student receives services.

  • Least Restrictive Environment: Part of an IEP’s purpose is to determine the setting in which the student will receive special education services.

  • Due Process: Federal legislation describes in detail the process a school must use to give families due process in terms of assessment of their student, development of a plan, determination of an appropriate placement, monitoring of the approved plan, and a hearing if the family is not satisfied with any aspect of this process.

  • Privacy: Information about accommodations being made for students because of their disability must be shared with teachers who are included in the Individual Education Plan. But information about the student should be placed in a locked file. Moreover, information about the students’ needs and the accommodations that the school is making should be discussed ONLY with faculty working with the student.

How do some Minnesota charter schools handle special education issues? 
Minnesota charter schools deal with special education issues in several ways.

  • Some schools contract with the Minnesota Special Education Project (mncharterschools.org/tech_specialed.htm). The Project has some licensed special educators who provide direct assistance to schools.
  • Some charter schools hire their own full or part-time special education director and/or licensed special education teachers.
  • Some charter schools contract with a local school district for the part-time services of a district special education director or part-time special education teachers depending on the number of special education students enrolled in the school.
  • Some charters contract with an intermediate school district for both the special education director and special education teacher(s).

To our knowledge, no one has done a careful comparison of these options. People starting a charter school in Minnesota should check with several charter school operators to learn more about the costs, advantages, and disadvantages of each approach. A listing of all Minnesota charter schools can be found at the Profiles of Minnesota Charter Schools website (http://www.centerforschoolchange.org/main.asp)

Special Education Funding
A detailed description of special education funding can be found in the finance section of this handbook.

Resources:

Minnesota Charter Schools Special Education Handbook: A Technical Assistance Tool (Policies and Procedures for Minnesota Charter Schools). This outstanding resource was produced by the Minnesota Special Education Project support from the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools (MACS) and the U.S. Department of Education. More information about this report is available by calling the Minnesota Special Education Project: 651-644-6116.

The Florida Charter School Resource Center has also produced two very helpful documents, both of which are available online. The first is called Special Education: Do’s and Don’ts. The second is Special Education: Information Briefs. Both documents are suitable for copying and can be a helpful part of information shared with a school’s faculty and families. See charterschools.usf.edu/publications.htm

The National Association of State Special Education Directors (NASDSE) has been a very active, positive force in helping charter schools think about effective ways to serve students with special needs. The U.S. Department of Education has funded this group to create a series of web-based materials to:

  1. Help train charter school operators in key aspects of federal law.
  2. Describe, via web-based materials, practices that work well for implementing special education in the authorizing and operation of charter schools.

PDF version of these materials is available.

In the mid 1990′s, NASDSE published a report on charter schools and special education. This document, which appeared before some amendments to federal law were adopted in 1997, is being revised. This organization can help put the special education issue in a national perspective. Moreover, the web-based materials it is producing may be extremely useful. To get more information, see nasdse.org/project_spedtacs.htm

The U.S. Department of Education website - uscharterschools.org - provides updates on recent research and publications on the area of charter schools and special education. Once at the home page for this website, enter special education in the “search” area to access the latest information available.