Current Issue

Know Your Rights: Disabilities in Charter Schools

Recently, there has been a debate on whether charter schools are inclusive when it comes to enrolling students with disabilities. There are laws and policies in place to protect these students, but in some instances, schools are still not accommodating. Learn about the disproportionate number of charter schools enrolling children with disabilities and the rights in place to protect these students. 

Are Charter Schools Inclusive?
In 2020, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) partnered and conducted a report to ensure charter schools were accessible to students with disabilities. 

Based on the most recent data collected, Colorado charter schools, on average, enroll 7.4 percent of students with disabilities, while traditional schools in the state enroll 11.4 percent.

The report, Shared Responsibility, Shared Accountability: An Analysis of Enrollment of Students with Disabilities in Colorado’s Charter School Sector, found that in 2015-2016, Colorado charter schools “enrolled students with disabilities at the lowest rate of all states with charter schools. In the same year, Colorado traditional public schools enrolled students with disabilities at the fourth-lowest rate of all states.”

Based on the findings at the time, many Colorado charter schools were not inclusive to students with disabilities. Some problematic areas include a lack of access (marketing, outreach, and recruitment), insufficient quality services, and a relatively exclusive school model. 

“Denver has always been an incredibly charter-friendly school district, but there are other areas of Colorado where school districts haven’t been as receptive to approve charter schools,” says Pamela Bisceglia, Executive Director of Advocacy Denver. “When you look at the under-representation, it was really looking at Colorado – the state of Colorado. But even in Denver, where there are many, many charter schools, we do still see that there are some charters where students with disabilities are underrepresented.”

Danny Combs, the Founder of TACT, explains that one of the reasons these schools aren’t inclusive is because they lack the resources to provide a quality education for children with disabilities. 

“When it comes to educational practice, what it’s supposed to be is that everybody is taught based on their level, and they’re supposed to be differentiated instruction to put the learner first to help them be successful,” Combs explains. “Unfortunately, what happens with public schools is they’re not set up for success with so many students. They don’t have the resources in regard to teachers, curriculum, and support staff.”

Laws in Place to Protect These Students
Due to the lack of resources at charter schools, parents need to know what laws are in place to protect their student with a disability. Here are four laws to keep in mind. 

1. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA ensures all U.S. children have a free and appropriate education regardless of their disability status. 

“A charter school is a public school, so they have an obligation, the same obligation as a traditional school and innovation school, to provide the student with a free appropriate public education,” Bisceglia explains. 

2. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This protects individuals from discrimination based on their disability. 

“As public schools, charter schools must open their enrollment to any student and must provide appropriate special education services as needed for students with disabilities,” states the Colorado Charter Handbook: A Guide for Starting and Operating a Charter School

3. Exceptional Children’s Educational Act (ECEA). This outlines what administrative units and their schools must do when creating program plans regarding IDEA and special education.

According to Bisceglia, the ECEA rules in the past have been misinterpreted by charter schools. 

“Their thought was that a parent could apply to enroll in the school, but that they [the school] would have the authority to look at someone’s Individualized Education Program or 504 plan and for the school leader to make a decision as to whether or not they could meet the child’s needs,” Bisceglia explains. “Those rules were amended the year before last, where it provided the clarification that they [charter schools] play by the same rules as every other school.”

In other words, if a family completes a choice application and the child is offered a seat, that is when a charter or traditional school can ask if the student has a disability. 

4. Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP was implemented to ensure that a child with a disability attending elementary and secondary school receives specialized instruction and related services. 

Moreover, according to Disability Law Colorado, “Every high school student with a disability who has an IEP is entitled to receive transition services and planning once they reach the age of 15. Transition services help students with disabilities plan for life and work after high school.”

Unfortunately, Combs points out that only 54 percent of students see some kind of transition plan. With schools not offering a transition plan, Combs says most of these students end up in day programming, essentially an adult daycare.

“Most of our kids, after they leave a charter school, even with an education like that, they still end up going to the centers where they sit and watch television and don’t really get to live to their full potential,” Combs explains. “Irregardless of charter or public, one of the biggest deficits that exist right now in education is our communities not being provided with the resources for what comes next.”

If a student with a disability is not receiving a quality education or being treated fairly at a public or charter school, the first step is to speak with the teacher or special education department. If the mistreatment continues, parents can file a complaint with either the CDE or the state. There are groups similar to Advocacy Denver that can help guide families. Whether a parent has a question about a particular law or is looking to file a complaint, there are organizations that can help. 

Family Food

Newsletter Signup

Your weekly guide to Mile High family fun. Colorado Parent has a newsletter for every parent. Sign Up