Charter schools must provide special education services and ensure that students with disabilities are not discriminated against just like traditional public schools, federal education officials say.
In a “Dear Colleague” letter issued Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education said that charters have the same obligations as regular public schools to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in addition to other federal civil rights laws. Such responsibilities are the same whether or not charters receive federal funding, the Education Department guidance indicates.
Specifically, students with disabilities are entitled to a free, appropriate public education and should not be discriminated against in the admissions process or in regard to discipline. Charters must also provide related services to students with disabilities and guarantee that such children have “equal opportunity” to participate in extracurricular activities, the guidance said.
“Every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education — that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met,” wrote Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, in the letter.
Parents with disabilities must also be accommodated by charters if they need a sign-language interpreter or materials written in Braille, for example, in order to communicate with school officials, Lhamon said.
Beyond civil rights laws, charters have obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, federal officials said. Lhamon indicated that her office is working with the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to develop guidance addressing the rights of students with disabilities who are attending charters and their parents.
Even as they serve an increasing number of students across the country, charter schools have faced criticism for failing to adequately include those with disabilities. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office found that children with disabilities accounted for 8 percent of those enrolled in charters compared to 11 percent of students in public schools.