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Last Updated: 03/12/2018


 Article of Interest - Charter Schools

Charter Schools:  The Ins and Outs

A Bridges4Kids Exclusive by Calvin & Tricia Luker
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit


A charter school is a public school created by a formal agreement (charter) between an individual or group of individuals and a local school district, state or independent governing board. Authorizing legislation varies from state to state but in general, charter schools governing boards are granted increased autonomy through either blanket exemptions from most state education regulations and local school district rules or the ability to apply for waivers from such requirements.

In exchange, charter schools are expected to meet certain accountability requirements specified in the charter. The general idea is to give charter schools the flexibility to try innovative and experimental ways of educating children while holding them accountable for results.

Depending on the state, charter schools can be organized by parents, teachers, existing public schools, nonprofit agencies, for-profit companies and even private schools. A key component of the concept is to put pressure on the regular public school system to change and improve by allowing someone other than the local school district to provide public education.

Charter schools are not exempt from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA], Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]. But how these laws apply is open to debate. On a purely statutory level, charter schools are public schools, and no state has the authority to grant waivers of the IDEA or federal antidiscrimination statutes such as Section 504 or the ADA to charter schools or any other public schools.

Many, if not most, charter schools may even have a greater responsibility under the IDEA and Section 504 than the traditional public school. Michigan allows charter schools to be legally autonomous agencies, often structured as nonprofit corporations. In Michigan, autonomy from the local school district is optional.

By defining a charter school in a way similar to that of a local education agency they imposed on themselves the obligations of the local educational agency under the IDEA, rather than the obligations of an individual public school.

Individual public schools are not responsible for the provision of a free appropriate public education [FAPE] under the IDEA; rather, it is the LEA, which in most cases means the local school district and the state. That means that requirements normally met by school districts -- child find, evaluation, IEP development, specialized instruction and related services, transition services, transportation, etc. -- may become the duty of an independently operated charter school, which in most cases are small and have tight budgets.

Many small school districts -- and many charter schools -- address that problem by pooling resources with other districts or schools to offer services at a regional level, but that could raise another potential problem under nondiscrimination provisions of Section 504 and the ADA.

Under those laws, a unique educational program that draws from a large geographic area -- whether it's a magnet school, a cosmetology program, a vocational/technical school, an elite academic program or a charter school -- probably cannot simply send a student with disabilities to another school if that school lacks its unique focus or emphasis. To do so could deny the student equal access to the unique program.

As a result, a unique program usually must serve a wider range of students with disabilities than a typical public school would. A charter school that claims to offer a unique, different or better program -- as every charter school does -- probably must serve any student with disabilities, unless that student needs to be educated in a self-contained school for students having similar needs.

And while it may be costly to meet that obligation -- particularly for an autonomous charter school that may be struggling just to pay its rent -- it's unclear whether public schools can invoke the "unfair burden" exception available to employers under Section 504 and the ADA.

Charter school administrators must understand the nature of the obligation Section 504 imposes on all LEAs -- a FAPE obligation similar to the IDEA's, but applicable to a much wider range of students. LEA's can't claim undue hardship when it comes to accommodating kids with disabilities in regular school activities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] guarantees special education services to children/adolescents who qualify for service under a variety of disabling conditions, including learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and emotional disabilities. As special education law currently stands, students with attention disorders do qualify for special education services, at least in some cases where their condition is relatively severe and persistent. A student who has been medically diagnosed as having ADHD may be disabled under Special Education Rules. However, the student must meet the eligibility criteria for a specific category (the most likely possibilities are the categories of "emotionally impaired," "learning disabled" or "physically or otherwise health impaired").

Many parents are seeking services for their students who have ADHD by using Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. To qualify under Section 504, your child must demonstrate a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (usually learning). A medical diagnosis of ADHD does not guarantee eligibility under either law.

IDEA and Section 504 requires that an LEA evaluate any person who, because of disability, needs or is believed to need special education or related services. The formal evaluation should help you and the school to get a better understanding of your children's learning difficulties. The results of your children's evaluations can help determine the best learning arrangements for him and how to help them learn strategies to deal with symptoms of his disability. I encourage you to make a written request to the charter school administrator for an evaluation. I am enclosing a sample letter for your convenience.

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