We have concerns about our ability to deliver instruction to students with disabilities that will be in keeping with our curriculum. What should we do?
Hopefully, this is an issue you addressed during your pre-authorization activities as you developed your school's mission and considered potential accommodations that will help you to include students with disabilities in your school.
As you prepare for students, remember that concerns about instruction should be discussed at the time of the child's IEP meeting and described in the child's individualized education program (IEP) so that all members of the team can contribute to, and understand, how the student will have access to the curriculum that is required by special education law. If your school's faculty needs help in accommodating the needs of a student who has a disability, you need to make provisions for professional development. One strategy that charter schools have found effective is incorporating into the IEP a provision for close tracking of the student's adjustment in the first 30 days at the charter school with a set date for the full IEP team to review progress and make any necessary revisions.
Due to my school's LEA status, we are responsible for hiring our staff and faculty. How much flexibility do we have in special education?
First, your charter school must follow your state's charter school law and regulations regarding faculty licensure. Changes to the IDEA law in 2004 and its regulations in 2006 require that special education teachers meet the "highly qualified" standards of NCLB. However, although special education teachers must have full certification and hold a license in the state to teach as a special education teacher, the law makes an exception: "the teacher has obtained full State certification as a special education teacher (including certification obtained through alternative routes to certification), or passed the State special education teacher licensing examination, and holds a license to teach in the State as a special education teacher, except that when used with respect to any teacher teaching in a public charter school, the term means that the teacher meets the requirements set forth in the State's public charter school law [CFR 34 Sec. 300.18(b)(i)]. It is essential that charter school operators who hire such personnel understand the requirements their state has established. You must abide by the decisions of the IEP Team that has identified the type of services the child will need and consider the staffing implications for delivering those services. Check with your SEA for specific information and guidance on relevant regulations in this area.
Do we have to hire full-time special educators in our charter school?
Depending on the needs of your students and staffing identified in their IEPs, it is highly unlikely that your charter school will have sufficient need to warrant hiring a complete complement of special educators. However, you will have to be creative and flexible in designing staffing loads. A few of the options include hiring faculty with dual licensure (in special and general education), hiring consultants on an hourly basis, or contracting for special educators via a collaborative agreement with the local school district or other (private or charter) schools.
Is there a difference between licensed educators and highly qualified educators?
Yes. Being licensed/certified is only one part of the requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) designed to ensure that teachers of core academic subjects be highly qualified. The IDEA applies this NCLB requirement to special education teachers who teach core subjects. There is a partial exemption from the highly qualified requirements for teachers in charter schools where their state law exempts them from certification requirements. Your SEA can provide clarification for specific requirements in your state.
Where can I obtain specific information on my state's licensure requirements pertaining to special education in charter schools?
In addition to your state's charter school office, you should become very familiar with your SEA's licensure office. Staff in this office will be able to interpret federal and state licensure requirements as they pertain to charter schools. Particularly during the early days of your school, don't assume you understand licensure requirements because you talked with a colleague in a neighboring state. There is extreme variability in licensure requirements across states.
What should we do when a child with a disability applies to our school?
Since charter schools may not discriminate on the basis of a disability in determining eligibility for admission, your considerations for students with disabilities are to be the same as for students without disabilities.
It is critical that your charter school receives the records for a child who applies for admission from the child's previous school to ensure the IEP requirements are implemented. If you do not automatically receive the records, initiate a request to the previous school. Contacting the special education office of the previous LEA may also be helpful in securing the records. Your SEA special education office can also help if you are not able to obtain a response from the previous school or LEA.
If we have concerns about our ability to meet the needs of a specific student with a disability, can we recommend other programs or schools?
It is typically not appropriate for you to suggest that the needs of a student with a disability may be better met in another school. During the course of student recruitment, it is expected that your school staff and representatives will share information with prospective students and families on the school's curriculum and services. It would also be appropriate to discuss the services and supports currently provided to students with disabilities and to explore potential strategies for meeting the needs of the prospective student. The initial focus should be on understanding the needed supports and services and identifying strategies for delivering them within the context of your school's framework. All issues about the appropriateness of the child's placement should be taken up with the child's IEP team.
Are there requirements for physical access that apply when I select the facilities that will house our charter school?
Yes. An LEA (including your charter school if it is its own LEA) may not deny persons with disabilities, including parents and students, the benefits of programs and activities offered at its schools because of inaccessible facilities. The selection of the facility for your charter school may not result in excluding or limiting enrollment of people with disabilities from any school program or activity.
We rent our school building. Whose responsibility is it to make our school accessible?
Responsibility to modify a facility should be articulated in the lease between your school and the owner of the facility. It is very important you seek legal counsel prior to signing any contracts to lease or purchase your facility.
Are there different legal requirements that apply to charter schools located in existing facilities as compared to newer facilities?
Yes. Generally for existing facilities, a charter school's programs and activities, when viewed in their entirety, must be readily accessible to individuals with disabilities. Both the Section 504 and ADA Title II regulations permit considerable flexibility in meeting this legal standard. For example, structural changes are not required in existing facilities if nonstructural methods are effective in achieving program accessibility. For new construction and alterations (i.e., construction began since June 1977), Section 504 and ADA Title II require that a new or altered facility (or the part that is new or altered) must be readily accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities.
What impact will these requirements have on our operations?
You must make sure that a child with a physical disability has access to every part of the new building or the parts that are newly altered. For example, if your charter school is in a new building, all parts of the building—including a third-floor chemistry lab—must be accessible for use by persons with disabilities. In contrast, if your charter school is in an existing facility, you might be able to meet the program accessibility requirement by locating at least one chemistry lab in an accessible location like the first floor. However, the specific federal, state and local requirements on this issue are very complicated and you should obtain legal counsel when acquiring a facility to house the charter school.
Where can we obtain information and technical assistance in making our school accessible?
Your state and/or local code dictate who is responsible for ensuring that public facilities are accessible. Check with this individual/entity for technical assistance in determining what modifications need to be made and the appropriate approach to accomplish your desired goal. Additional resources are available from OCR online at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/index.html or from your SEA.
Summary and Key Points
Your activities during the start-up period will provide the foundation for the day-to-day operation of your school. As you prepare for the opening, keep children with disabilities in mind. Every time you, your board and your staff get ready to make a decision, ask yourselves if this decision will help every potential student? Cultivate your resources so you can draw on their expertise and experiences. Remember there are many sources of information and support available to you, including other charter and traditional schools, your state department of education and charter school resource centers and/or associations that exist in many states to assist during the development and operation of a charter school.