Charter Schools: Know Your Rights

What is a charter school?

A charter school is “a public school that provides free elementary and/or secondary education to eligible students under a specific charter executed, pursuant to a state charter school law, by an authorized agency/authority and that is designated by such authority to be a public charter school” – Office for Civil Rights 2017-2018 Civil Rights Data

Like any public school, charter schools may not charge fees or tuition, and may not charge for books and instructional materials, and may not require that parents make donations to the school. Charters can solicit donations but all donations must be voluntary.

Charter school have to comply with the same laws as public schools

The ‘charter’ of each of these schools is a contract detailing how the school is to be managed, the curriculum, what students are expected to achieve, and how success will be measured.

Any person or entity – not necessarily an educator – can establish a charter school. Some charters are for profit business entities. Some are nonprofit organizations.

Charter schools are sometimes perceived to be independent entities, not answerable to any state, federal or other authority.  And, charter schools often behave as though they were not obliged to comply with any State, City or School District laws and regulations governing traditional public schools – but they ARE.

Charter School Laws

In California, charter schools are public schools under the jurisdiction of the public school system, as provided in §47615 of the California Education Code.  They are exempt from some California State laws governing school districts – but here are some of the laws with which charter schools must comply:

  1. State and federal constitutions.
  2. The California Charter Schools Act (EC Section 47600 et. seq.).
  3. All federal laws (e.g., Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act).
  4. All laws that are a condition of funding for a specific program for which the charter school chooses to participate (e.g., No Child Left Behind [NCLB] Act of 2001)
  5. Laws establishing minimum age for school attendance.
  6. Laws governing non classroom-based programs (whether defined as independent study, home schooling, distance learning, personalized learning or virtual).
  7. Educational Employees Relations Act (California Government Code Section 3540 et. seq.).
  8.  State pupil testing programs (e.g., Physical Fitness Test, Standardized Testing and Reporting, California High School Exit Examination, California English Language Development Test.)

Charter Schools serve significantly fewer children with disabilities than public schools

Many public charter schools were formed to serve a niche demographic market, e.g. students of privilege, or religious affiliation. Because of the ineffectiveness of State or District oversight, such schools can, and mostly do, operate in relative isolation and with impunity.

This is particularly the case in the admissions process. Some charter schools have been able to get away with selecting students they want and excluding students they don’t, such as lower income students, students whose first language is not English, students with disabilities, other ‘minority’ groups. Charter schools serve significantly fewer children with disabilities than public schools. They are not supposed to, but there is too little effective enforcement.
But – and it’s a hugely important ‘but’ – public charter schools DO receive Federal funding from the Department of Education, so they ARE subject to all Federal laws.

This is where the rights of your child with disabilities to an equal education are fully protected in public charter schools. As a parent of a child with disabilities what can you do to advocate for their rights to an equal education in a charter school?

Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities: What You Should Know to Advocate for Your Child

Knowledge is power.  Understanding the laws that govern the rights of people with disabilities and those subject to these laws is key to knowing how you can be your child’s best advocate:

Charter schools are either for-profit or nonprofit.  As for-profit charter schools do not qualify for government funding, they are not subject to the jurisdiction of federal agencies.

BUT, non-profit ‘public’ charter schools are eligible to receive federal financial assistance and are subject to federal laws and regulations enforced by the Department of Education, including the Office of Civil Rights.

In other words, although charter schools are exempt from many state regulations, they are NOT exempt from federal laws governing equal rights, access and discrimination.

The most important federal laws, regulations and related acronyms that affect students with disabilities

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This legislation ensures that students with a disability are provided with Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that is tailored to their individual needs. Its purpose is to give equal access to the general education curriculum.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is enforced by the Office of Civil Rights and is an implementing regulation that requires a 504 plan – a blueprint- for how the school will provide support and remove barriers for a student with a disability.

Despite these laws many public charter schools engage in practices designed to exclude or discourage students with disabilities in various ways. In the 2013-2014 school year, students with disabilities made up 11% of the total public charter school population in the USA, while in the traditional public schools, they accounted for 18% of the total student population.

Furthermore, even those charter schools established to serve or include children with disabilities serve far fewer children with the most challenging types of disabilities which require costly resources, such as severely emotionally disturbed or autistic children.

What these laws mean for you and your child’s rights at charter schools

Probe a little further into these laws and you will find that there is a lot to support any advocate of a child’s rights to FAPE in the public charter school system. The Department of Education has issued guidance to parents, students and charter schools explaining the rights of students with disabilities in charter schools. These are the key points to know about your rights:

  1. The Department of Education authorizes that a charter school may not limit the services it will provide to a student with a disability.
  2. IDEA stipulates “that parents must have a voice in their child’s education. Under IDEA, you have a say in the decisions the school makes about your child. At every point of the process, the law gives you specific rights and protections. These are called procedural safeguards. For example, one safeguard is that the school must get your consent before providing services to your child.”
    1. Part B of IDEA mandates that students enrolled in charter schools and their parents or legal guardians retain all of the rights and protection that they would have if attending other public schools including procedural safeguards, the right to a FAPE, in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and special education and related services in conformity with a properly developed IEP (Individualized Education Program.
  3. With respect to Section 504’s prohibition against disability discrimination and the right to FAPE, “charter school students with disabilities, as well as those seeking admission, have the same rights as students with disabilities in public non-charter schools, including the right to Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE), equal treatment and nondiscrimination in nonacademic and extra-curricular activities such as sports and outings, and accessibility such as ramps.”
    1. Regarding admission policy governing charter schools, it is a violation of the law for a charter school to ask an applicant whether he or she has a disability. The question of whether a student has ever had an IEP or Section 504 Plan may not be included in the application. The question of whether a student has or ever had an IEP or Section 504 Plan may only be asked after the student has been accepted.
    2. The Department of Education warns that “charter schools may not counsel out i.e. try to convince the student (or parents) that the student should not attend (or continue to attend) the school because the student has a disability. That is, the school must not discourage a student and his family from applying for admission, or to encourage a student to withdraw from the school.”

Knowledge is power.  Understanding the laws that govern the rights of people with disabilities and those subject to these laws is key to knowing how you can be your child’s best advocate.


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