Yes. All public schools must provide special education services to eligible students. Charter schools are public schools and must therefore comply with state and federal education law just as public school districts are required to do, namely each must provide eligible students with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE").
Charter schools can be a great option for parents and their child. But parents should be aware of the limitations of charter schools. Generally speaking, charter schools tend to have less financial resources and fewer personnel than school districts. This means a charter school may have difficulty providing the same services/service levels that a child previously received within a school district.
Three Things Parents Should Consider/Watch Out For:
Ensure the charter school's philosophy is a fit for your child. Some charter schools have teaching philosophies that can actually conflict with certain students' IEPs. To cite but one example, there are a few charter schools in San Diego County (I will not name them here) that have unique approaches to working with students with behaviors. In certain instances, a child's behavior intervention plan ("BIP") might not be properly implemented in these particular programs.
Charter schools cannot turn away a child that is eligible for the school's program simply because he or she has an IEP. So it's imperative that parents fully understand the charter school's program from top to bottom before enrolling their child. I've helped many families negotiate with charter schools after things have gone disastrously wrong. A common retort from special education directors at charter schools is: "You came to us. You knew what we offered and what we didn't, and you still chose to enroll." Fortunately charter schools cannot evade liability under state and federal education law simply because parents knew (or should have known, according to the charter school) what the educational program entailed. But, I'm firm believer in an "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If parents can avoid unnecessary pitfalls in their child's education, they should.
An unexplained reduction of service levels. In my practice, I have seen many instances where a child begins at a charter school and the school immediately reduces the child's service levels. For example, a child might have received 4 hours per week of specialized academic instruction within a school district and the charter school reduces it to 30 minutes per week.
Now, just because a charter school reduces service levels doesn't mean it has necessarily denied the child a FAPE. But when this happens, it definitely raises a red flag. A reduction of service levels must be reasonable and based on the child's needs.
Many times parents are so happy to be getting their child a fresh start at a new school and because they don't want to rock the boat, they accept the charter school's recommendations without critically analyzing whether the recommendation is appropriate for their child. This often turns out to be a big mistake that only becomes obvious months or, sometimes, years later.
If parents find themselves in a situation where a charter school is recommending an reduction in service levels, parents would do well to get the charter school's rationale for the reduction on the record, either in writing (such as meeting notes) or via an IEP audio recording.
Failure to implement an IEP. Charter schools frequently use third-party vendors for related services, such as occupational therapy, mental health counseling, etc.. Charter schools sometimes run into vendor/staffing issues and because of this, they fail to provide special education students with the services and/or supports they are due in accordance with their IEP. Sometimes the charter school will communicate this immediately to parents. Other times, charter schools communicate it months later and only after the student has missed considerable educational time. Worse still, there are instances where the charter school doesn't communicate it all and leave it parents to figure it out for themselves.
Parents should take an active role to ensure that their child's services are being implemented. To this end, parents can ask for:
- services logs;
- weekly/bi-weekly/monthly reports from service providers;
- ask their child (if age-appropriate) if he or she has seen his/her service provider.
Speak with An Experienced San Diego Special Education Attorney
If you have questions about charter schools or your child's special education program, please feel free to schedule a free consultation.