Students With Disabilities in Charter Schools

By: National Center for Technology Innovation

Charter schools have become a hot topic across the country, with the number of charters exploding in recent years. In the two decades since they were first established, charter schools have become a key part of the public education landscape. By 2008, more than 1 million students were enrolled in public charter schools—representing about 3 percent of the total population of students in U.S. public schools.16 Though many American students are now enrolled in public charter schools, there has been growing concern about how students with disabilities are served in the charter school environment. As more and more parents consider charter schools as an alternative to noncharter public schools for their children with special needs, special education in charters deserves a critical look. In this info brief, we examine the challenges and successes of special education in charter schools, including issues related to enrollment, legal identity, infrastructure, school choice, and virtual charters.


While reports of discrimination, underenrollment, and "counseling out" of students with disabilities are alarming, researchers have found that many of the challenges related to special education in charters stem instead from a lack of knowledge, funding, preparation, or capacity.2,7 Charter schools may face several unique challenges when it comes to providing special education, including the following:

  • Enrollment of students with disabilities
  • Legal identity of charter schools
  • Special education infrastructure
  • Relative newness of charters
  • School choice vs. least restrictive environment regulations

Enrollment of Students With Disabilities in Charters

Critics of charter schools have argued that charters enroll students with disabilities less frequently than public schools, particularly when it comes to students with more severe disabilities, who may be more difficult or costly to educate.1, 2, 7 These criticisms are supported by anecdotal research suggesting that some charters had "counseled out" students with disabilities—that is, they had discouraged parents and caregivers of students with more severe special needs from enrolling in their school, suggesting that the school was not prepared to meet those needs.1, 2, 5 Adding to the controversy surrounding charters and students with special needs, comparisons of charters with noncharter public schools often highlight considerable segregation, with low-income students, English language learners, and students with special needs enrolled at lower percentages in charters.2

Confusion Over Legal Identity of Charters

Legal identity has presented a significant challenge for many charters when determining where and how to provide special education services. Depending on state law, a charter may be considered a separate local education agency (LEA), or it may be considered "linked" to an existing LEA. The degree of linkage with an existing LEA means that charters may occasionally share responsibility for special education with an LEA or may be solely responsible for service provision.1, 9, 12 These partnerships and allocations of responsibility can vary widely among states, and even within states. Confusion about who is legally responsible and required to provide specific services can mean that students with special needs do not get the services they need.

Special Education Infrastructure

The considerable variability in authorization requirements adds to the confusion about charters' legal identity and responsibility for special education. Often, charter schools are not required to demonstrate special education capacity prior to authorization, meaning that authorizing bodies may be unaware or lack understanding of key federal, state, and local regulations related to students with special needs.1,8,9 State regulations governing charters may not always give charter administrators guidance about enrollment of students with disabilities, and schools may not have the resources and support they need with regard to training, preparation, and funding for special education.2,5,9,12 Charter school leaders cite a lack of institutionalized support to meet the needs of their students with disabilities, particularly those with more severe needs.7, 12 Planning for special education services prior to authorization is critical to avoid "creating a situation in which issues regarding special education are not addressed until a school opens."8 This lack of preparation and planning, coupled with gaps in special education infrastructure, can have a considerable effect on the successful provision of special education services.

Charter Schools Are Likely to Be New

Charter schools are a relatively new addition to the educational landscape in the United States; this also can pose challenges to providing special education services. In 2010, more than half of all charter schools had been open fewer than seven years.11 Start-up charters (which represented 90 percent of all charters opened in 2009–2010), may have difficulties securing funding and staff and building special education capacity, which can significantly affect their ability to provide sufficient services to students with special needs.11 Charters tend to spend less money on special education, and authorizers often cite insufficient funding for special education as an ongoing challenge.2,3,14 Funding for special education directly affects the kinds of services, teacher training, assistive technology, and professional development that charters are able to provide on behalf of their students with special needs.

The relative newness of charters, funding issues, and wide variations in charter regulations by state mean that charter school operators often are not sure how they should be addressing special education and which agencies are responsible.

Opportunities and Successes

Because most charter schools are fairly small, accurate data on the achievement of students with disabilities in charters has been limited.15 However, despite limited data and legal tensions regarding educating students with disabilities, many parents are opting to send their children to charter schools, and parental opinions about charters tend to be favorable.6 Furthermore, though there are considerable concerns about the provision of federally mandated services for children with special needs in charter schools, there are some elements that suggest a positive direction for the future. For example, charter schools are less likely to label students and more likely to serve children in a fully inclusive setting,7 although there is wide variation in how inclusion is defined.1 Anecdotally, students with disabilities may receive more individualized attention in charter schools due to smaller class sizes and more flexible curricula.1

Benefits to Being "New"

The newness of charters also can be viewed as a beneficial factor, as a start-up charter provides educators and parents with a good opportunity to develop a fully inclusive program from the ground up.4 To avoid some of the training and infrastructure challenges cited in previous sections, it is critical for start-ups to plan carefully during each phase and ensure that students with disabilities and their special education needs are considered from the beginning.

Creative Collaboration

Many charter schools have addressed the challenges associated with legal identity and special education infrastructure by pursuing creative strategies for providing services to their students with disabilities. Because charters may be small and lack purchasing power, they may have many of the same challenges with regard to recruitment, training, and equipment that are faced by rural districts.14 As with rural districts, many charters address these issues by linking up with other programs, aligning with an established special education program or department, or sharing resources with other charters.5,8 Other charters are experimenting with alternative service delivery models, such as virtual schools and teletherapy services.

Virtual Charters

Though virtual charter schools represent only a small percentage of charter schools nationwide (about 4 percent in 2010), they reflect a growing trend. Some states currently forbid the development of virtual charter schools (Maryland is one such example); however, others have embraced virtual schooling. In California, more than 20 percent of charters deliver instruction online.14 Little is known about how virtual public schools, charter or otherwise, are serving students with disabilities.10 Virtual schools face the same challenges as traditional charter schools with regard to legal identity and determining roles and responsibilities in providing special education and related services, compounded by difficulties in providing special education services, conducting IEP meetings, and ensuring that federal disability requirements are met within a virtual environment.10,13

Despite these concerns, key elements of virtual schools may make them particularly well-suited to providing learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Virtual schools and online learning environments tend to offer the following:

  • Individualized programming
  • Numerous opportunities for parental involvement
  • Frequent feedback
  • Multimodal presentation formats10

These critical features of online learning echo the literature on best practices in special education and individualizing instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners. Research on virtual schools for students with disabilities is ongoing, so it remains to be seen whether this environment will prove successful in meeting their needs.

Future Directions

More research is needed to determine how well students with disabilities fare overall in charter schools. It appears that many charter schools have been successful in providing special education and related services, but others remain unsure about the best way to address student needs. Additional research could help translate lessons learned from successful inclusive charter schools to newer start-ups, ensuring that special education is built in from the earliest design phases. Charter schools looking to incorporate special education into the curriculum successfully must ensure that certain elements are present, including the following:

  • Curriculum is accessible to all learners.
  • Students are not denied admission based on learning needs.
  • Schools do not open before they have developed a detailed plan for providing services to students with disabilities.
  • Roles and responsibilities of the charter, LEA, state education agency, and other related agencies are clearly defined.



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1 Ahearn, E. (2001). Public charter schools and students with disabilities. ERIC Digest E609. Arlington, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Retrieved from www.eric.ed.gov

2 Arcia, E. (2006). A test of the segregation premise: Comparison of enrollment percentages of charter and non-charter schools in a large urban school district. Journal of School Choice, 1(2), 33–45.

3 Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J. Doyle, D., & Hassel, B. (2010). Charter school funding: Inequity persists. Muncie, IN: Ball State University. Retrieved from http://www.bsu.edu/teachers/media/pdf/charterschfunding051710.pdf

4 Downing, J. E., Spencer, S., & Cavallaro, C. (2004). The development of an inclusive charter elementary school: Lessons learned. Research and Practice for Persons With Severe Disabilities, 29(1), 11–24.

5 Estes, M. B. (2009). Charter schools and students with disabilities: How far have we come? Remedial and Special Education, 30(4), 216–224.

6 Finn, J., Caldwell, K., & Raub, T. (2006). Why parents choose charter schools for their children with disabilities. Journal of Educational Research and Policy Studies, 6(2), 91–110.

7 Hehir, T. (2010, January 27). Charters: Students with disabilities need not apply? Education Week, 29(19), pp. 18–19, 21.

8 Lange, C. M., Rhim, L. M., & Ahearn, E. M. (2008). Special education in charter schools: The view from state education agencies. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 21(1), 12–21.

9 Mead, J. F. (2008). Special report: Charter schools designed for children with disabilities: An initial examination of issues and questions raised. Alexandria, VA: The National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved from http://www.uscharterschools.org/specialedprimers

10 Müller, E. (2010). Virtual K–12 public schools programs and students with disabilities: Issues and recommendations. A Policy Forum Proceedings Document. Alexandria, VA: National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved from http://www.projectforum.org

11 National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Public Charter School Dashboard National Data 2009–2010. Retrieved from http://www.publiccharters.org/dashboard/schools/year/2010

12 Rhim, L. M., Ahearn, E. M., & Lange, C. M. (2007). Charter school statutes and special education: Policy answers or policy ambiguity? The Journal of Special Education, 41(1), 50–63.

13 Rhim, L. M., & Kowal, J. (2008). Special report: Demystifying special education in virtual charter schools. Alexandria, VA: The National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved from http://www.uscharterschools.org/specialedprimers/download/special_report_rhim.pdf

14 Rhim, L. M., & McLaughlin, M. (2007). Students with disabilities in charter schools: What we now know. Focus on Exceptional Children, 39(5), 1–12.

15 Swanson, E. A. (2004). Special education services in charter schools. The Educational Forum, 69(1), 34–43.

16 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2008). The condition of education: Charter school enrollment (Indicator 3—2011). Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cse.asp

National Center for Technology Innovation (2011)