At a glance
Charter schools are public schools.
Charter schools have limited spots, so students have to apply to attend.
It’s against the law for charter schools to “counsel out,” or discourage kids with disabilities from attending or applying.
If you’re thinking about enrolling your child with learning or thinking differences in a public charter school, you may have questions. If so, you’re not alone. Many parents wonder if their child would be better off at a charter school.
While there are charter schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia, there’s still confusion around what they are and which kids they serve. Here’s what you need to know.
What charter schools are
The key thing to know about charter schools is that they’re public schools. That means they’re required to provide supports and services to kids who are eligible. They also must provide what’s known as free appropriate public education (FAPE). This is an important legal right for kids in special education.
Like traditional public schools, charter schools are free and open to all students. One big difference, however, is that students need to apply to attend. These schools often have limited slots available, and spots are filled by lottery.
Charter schools and special education
Some parents worry that charter schools may not welcome kids with learning and thinking differences. They’re concerned that their child might not get the level of support given at a traditional school.
A charter school can’t look at an application, see an or a , and choose not to enroll that child, though. And they can’t do what’s known as “counseling out.” That’s when a school discourages children with disabilities from attending or applying by saying it’s not a “good fit.” It’s against the law for charter schools to turn away students because of their special education needs.
Many kids with learning and thinking differences are at charter schools. That includes a quarter of a million kids who get services, according to the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS). (There are more than 100 charter schools that focus specifically on these services.)
If you’re looking at a charter school, there’s certain information you’ll want to get. Find out who’s responsible for providing services. Also, ask who’s in charge of the evaluation process.
Responsibility for these things doesn’t lie with parents. But it may not always lie directly with the charter school either. It depends on the authority overseeing the school.
In some cases, it might be the charter school itself. Or it might be the school district. Some schools operate within a larger network of charter schools. That’s one way they can make sure they’re providing services to students who need them.
Different learning environments of charter schools
Going to a charter school can offer real benefits to some kids with learning and thinking differences. Some schools offer an environment that is supportive of how different kids learn. But not all charters operate the same way or have the same philosophies.
Some charters have strict policies for student conduct and use traditional teaching methods. Others are more focused on personalized learning models. And some have a focus on specific interests or programs, such as STEM or the performing arts.
Things to explore before enrolling in a charter
Before you enroll your child in a charter school, it’s important to make sure it’s able to meet your child’s needs and interests. To start, look at the school’s mission, goals, and philosophy. Some questions to consider:
- What is the school’s teaching philosophy? Is the approach in line with how your child learns?
- What model of teaching does the charter use? For instance, does it use a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) or personalized learning approach?
- Are students taught in small groups or provided 1:1 instruction as needed?
- How does the school talk about special education services and supports in its mission statement?
- Does the school have inclusion or collaborative teaching classrooms?
- How does the school handle behavior concerns? Does it use a proactive approach to discipline like PBIS?
You might also want to know when the school asks about students having a disability. Some charters may ask in the application. Others may wait until a student has been selected for admission. Still others make it optional for you to provide the information at any time.
Sharing information about your child’s learning and thinking differences ahead of time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It gives the school time to try to get ready to support your child’s needs.
Still, having the question on the application can make some parents uncomfortable. If you feel that way, you can definitely skip it.
It’s also a good idea for you to have information on the school before you apply. States typically require charters to provide “report cards” for parents.
You can review the report card to learn about the success and progress of different student groups. One of those groups might be students who get special education services. The report card can show you how kids in that group are faring, compared to other students.
Many charter schools use innovative teaching practices that can be great for your child. But finding the right school is always key. And read how one family’s discovery that their two sons had dyslexia drove them to start a charter school for kids with learning differences.
Charter schools are required to provide special education services and supports to eligible kids.
Charter schools that support different learning styles may be a good fit for kids with learning and thinking differences.
Make sure a charter school is a good match for your child before enrolling.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Meghan Casey Whittaker, JD is the policy and advocacy manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).