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Colorado Charter Schools and Special Education Overview

As public schools, charter schools must open their enrollment to any student who lives within the authorizing school district, and must provide appropriate special education services as needed by students with disabilities. Charter school developers and operators are encouraged to focus their attentions on the difficulties charter schools encounter when serving students with disabilities and the technical assistance required for appropriate placement, IDEA compliance, liabilities and responsibilities, curricular adaptations, instructional modifications, and implementation of quality standards within charter schools. Resources and personnel are often limited as districts struggle to fill vacancies with a limited pool of licensed educators. Charter applications and contractual negotiations should provide explicit language for identifying and serving special ed students.

Numerous research and studies on charter schools both locally and nationally indicate the growing awareness of and need for technical assistance in developing quality special education programs for students attending charter schools. Colorado charter school experiences are no different. Charter schools need to plan for the provision of ongoing and embedded staff development and training, resource development, IEP staffing, service providers, and funding around the issues of special education.

PROJECT SEARCH: Colorado Case Study Executive Summary by Lauren Rhim and sponsored by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education conducted an in-depth case-study of special education policies and practices in Colorado charter schools between January 1999 and September 2000. The study can is located on CDE’s charter school web page under the heading of National Studies. The case study of Colorado charter school’s capacity to deliver special education revealed a wealth of information about the concerns and challenges districts and their charter schools struggle with to address the needs of their special ed students. In summary, three key issues were highlighted from the case study:

Districts and charter schools must negotiate to determine how to deliver special education in charter schools. There are inherent tensions underlying the negotiations stemming from districts’ legal obligations due to IDEA and the charter schools’ desire for autonomy.

The application process is the key opportunity for districts and charters to address the innumerable details associated with their relationship; and

Technical assistance is central to charter schools developing the capacity to deliver special education; and

Charter school finance and specifically education finance is an ongoing challenge.

In developing a charter school application and the subsequent special education program implementation, three broad issues have been identified for Colorado charters:

  1. Who is responsible for special education services?
  2. How are special education services delivered?
  3. How are special education services funded?

The 1996 Charter Schools and Students with Disabilities study sponsored by the Center for Policy Research on the Impact of General and Special Education Reform cited the increasing number of students with special needs in Colorado charter schools who are not necessarily identified as special education but for whom many believe would qualify for these services. Charter schools are often perceived by parents of special needs students as a haven from the public school’s "bureaucratic" special education program and the fears of their child being trapped or labeled for a specific program of study the rest of their school career. In contrast, charter operators often cite the need for increased training and awareness in legal obligations and resources in identifying these students.

Colorado charter schools continue to attract a variety of students and are located in diverse geographical areas across the state. Charter school program and academic designs are as diverse as their settings and the students they enroll including schools specifically designed for the inner city, pregnant/parenting teen, juvenile offenders, court appointed, at-risk students, gifted, and math/technology emphasis. The charter school location may be as diverse as a one room school house in Marble or North Routte, a suburb of Jeffco or Denver, or a large inner city school located within a high poverty/minority area. What charter schools offer is an exercising of parental choice and an alternative to traditional public education paradigms for students with diverse learning needs. These schools often promote a strong sense of community and parental involvement, teacher commitment, and teacher/administrator commitment. The curriculum and instructional focus of these charter schools are becoming increasingly attractive to parents of students who are needing a more focused and individualized program promoting academic success.

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