Everyone benefits when charter schools and districts partner on special education

Gina Plate

Gina Plate

The charter school movement began as a way to create a new kind of public school – one with more flexibility and autonomy over instruction and operations in exchange for higher levels of accountability.

However, as the movement evolved, flexibility and autonomy did not follow in the area of special education. Instead, charter schools’ special education services have, in many cases, mirrored the services provided by the charter school’s authorizer (usually the local school district). Take the example of a student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) enrolling at a charter school; since the IEP indicates a need for a specialized placement, the student/family would likely be offered space in a program back at a traditional district campus instead of at the charter school.

In January 2011, the Los Angeles Unified School District made a bold move to try a new approach, which was unanimously approved by the LAUSD School Board.

In California, services for students with disabilities are administered through regional district collaboratives, called Special Education Local Plan Areas, or SELPAs. In this case, the SELPA for Los Angeles Unified organized a new option for charter schools to provide special education services with full responsibility, flexibility and autonomy for serving all students with disabilities enrolled in the school. The Charter Operated Program (COP) became operational on July 1, 2011 with 47 participating schools, serving nearly 27,000 students. Its mission is to create a community of charter schools working together to provide innovative, high-quality educational options for students with unique needs. This network will serve as a model for excellence and directly address the concern that historically there have been lower percentages of students with special needs in charter schools compared to the district average.

Charter schools are committed to serving every child who walks through their doors. Unfortunately, prior to this option, charter schools in LAUSD had limited ability to serve students with moderate to severe disabilities. It’s not that the charters didn’t want to provide programs; it’s that they have lacked the funding and flexibility to develop those programs. This reorganization removed barriers and gave charter schools the ability to serve all students.

A primary goal of the LAUSD board was to increase the number of students with special needs enrolled in charter schools, as well as the range of disabilities of the students served. That is exactly what we have seen in a report released this fall by the California Charter Schools Association. The results of the first two years of the COP program have exceeded all original expectations:

  • The percentage of students with disabilities enrolled in COP schools increased from 8.09 percent to 9.01 percent after the first year, which was greater than a similar increase across all charter schools in the district. (Based on data from California Basic Educational Data System and Welligent.)
  • The percentage of students with moderate to severe disabilities at the COP schools grew by 21.9 percent, which is greater than the overall student enrollment growth of 11.2 percent.
  • COP member schools added more than 100 new students with moderate to severe disabilities after their first year in the program.


A new report from the Office of the Independent Monitor, the oversight agency of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s special education program, shows this trend of increasing enrollment of students with special needs continued in the third year of the program as well.

Charter schools are diverse – in their missions, size and length of operation. The LAUSD reorganization recognizes this and actually gives charter schools a continuum of three different options that reflect the varying levels of support they might want from a district. These range from an option that fully links a charter to district services, all the way to an option that offers independence from the district.

The reorganization gives charter schools, regardless of their size, the ability to serve students across a wide spectrum of disabilities. Schools in the new and more flexible option can spend special education funds in a way that better aligns with the unique mission and vision of their programs, ultimately benefiting students.

There is a significant shift happening in the field of special education. It used to be that when a student was identified as having special needs, the question was: Where should we send this student? “Special education” became a place: It was a special day class. It was a special education center. It was a private placement.

With this new option, all stakeholders are moving toward a different question that focuses on how a student will be served, not where. Charter schools are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities. The continuum of options that LAUSD now offers to charter schools is an innovative partnership that leverages the unique flexibility inherent in this movement, and ensures true choice for every family.

While there are many facets to this new model, the underlying premise is simple: Give schools a continuum of options that allows for increasing flexibility and autonomy in funding and service delivery and let them, in partnership with their authorizer, determine the best match for the students in their programs. While the LAUSD program is the first of its kind, it could be implemented elsewhere because it contains arrangements that already exist in other areas of California and the nation. The model intertwines the best that the district has to offer and the best that the charter schools have to offer, under an umbrella of partnership and trust. We hope it will serve as an example of how traditional public schools and charter schools can share expertise, services, funding and a role in decision-making within a single SELPA.


Gina Plate is senior adviser for special education for the California Charter Schools Association.



Filed under: Charter Schools, Commentary, Special Education



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8 Responses to “Everyone benefits when charter schools and districts partner on special education”

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  1. Gina Plate on Nov 30, 2013 at 11:55 am11/30/2013 11:55 am

    • 000

    It is clear that this is a complicated issue, and not intended to draw a comparison between the District and Charter special ed populations, but rather point out the results for students with districts and charters work together to create new and innovative options for students.

    When we look at the discrepancy in percentage of students with special needs at district vs. charter schools, there are a lot of potential factors at play – many of which are detailed in this recent report – parent choice, structural barriers, etc.:

    Our work at CCSA focuses directly on those structural barriers. In my experience, most charter school leaders want to serve students with a wide range of needs – but there are very real barriers that, in many case, result in smaller populations being served in the charter schools. This is born out in our experience in LAUSD. When the delivery system was restructured, the percentage of students with special needs in those charter schools increased. There are many elements of this partnership that, when implemented elsewhere, will most likely have similar outcomes – more students with a broader range of need being served in the charter setting.

  2. Anne White on Nov 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm11/20/2013 12:11 pm

    • 000

    Gina’s report informs us that the flexibility that charter schools enjoy is not realized for special education students. Who or what is standing in the way of creative charters to design innovative programs that meet the needs of their challenged students? Are federal or state monitors or even the charter’s own authorizer standing in the way? Perhaps this is merely a rhetorical question.

    If a student’s IEP places him at a program offered at a traditional district campus, what has been gained by his family’s choice of the charter? More to the point, who pays? It is no secret that activities provided to meet the needs of special students cost far more than the allocations from the federal or state governments and any LCFF funding. Still, the services must be provided. In the case of the special charter student who is placed in the district program, which school budget suffers the encroachment?

    We all look forward to the innovation that charters may bring to the special education arena. Perhaps the potential flexibility of charters will lead to programs which are both effective and can be offered within the cost constraints of funds allocated for these students. Special students will surely flock to these worthy programs at charter schools. Traditional districts will benefit from a fuller range of activities available to their challenged students. Regular students will benefit from a budget more in balance.


    • navigio on Nov 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm11/20/2013 12:38 pm

      • 000

      i like answering rhetorical questions.. 😉

      What is standing in the way is the very concept of charter schools (not necessarily what they were originally intended to be). Your point about understanding the encroachment is right on. Charters are effectively used today as an ‘end-around’ on traditional process (which can manifest in all sorts of manner). Encroachment is one of those things that I think charters are intended to ‘escape’ (intentionally or not–not being simple market forces). So even if the freedom would allow different (or even better) solutions, they would have to come at the expense of other students in the school and thus will not happen. That they come at the expense of much larger and more abstract group called the kids in traditional schools in the school district, is obviously ok.

  3. Bea on Nov 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm11/19/2013 5:09 pm

    • 000

    How nice that CCSA has an adviser for special education. I hope real progress gets made and that charter schools apply their legislated flexibility toward creative solutions for special needs students.

    In our community, the county authorized charter school residing in our district continues to wildly underserve students requiring special education. Special Ed students make up 15% of our district population. They are 0.01% at the charter school in our midst. The school is rigorous by design, but it’s a myth that they accept and support all students who enter. The result is that they skim 500 of our top flyers (and gain national accolades for doing so), they in turn concentrate high needs students in our district schools. $1400 of every general ed student’s ADA goes toward unfunded but required special education services. That number would go down, benefitting all district students if the charter school would just be willing to serve even 5% of their population instead of sending them back to us.

    Honestly, the national rankings should include an asterisk for charter schools who fail to represent the demographics of the community in which they reside. And CCSA should hold them accountable as well.

  4. Paul on Nov 18, 2013 at 7:16 pm11/18/2013 7:16 pm

    • 000

    To add to Caroline’s comment, the percentage growth figures chosen are not particularly meaningful, because they reflect growth from a smaller base. (Presumably, students with disabilities made up — and still make up — a far smaller share of the charter school pupil population than of the district school pupil population.)

    As Kermit once said, “nothing times nothing is still nothing.” (I include this quote to explain why percentage growth figures are irrelevant, not to dismiss the small amount of progress that has been made.)

  5. jas6771 on Nov 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm11/18/2013 4:24 pm

    • 000

    It is clear that charter schools are continuing to demonstrate innovative arrangements that are serving students well. This partnership, within the second largest district in the nation, demonstrates a model for charters and authorizers both in other parts of CA and the nation.

  6. CarolineSF on Nov 18, 2013 at 9:43 am11/18/2013 9:43 am

    • 000

    It seems questionable to describe this policy as “mirroring” the services provided by the authorizer. It’s thoroughly established that charter schools serve fewer students with disabilities than comparable public schools do, especially those with severe disabilities, and this would seem to describe how that happens.

    Instead, charter schools’ special education services have, in many cases, mirrored the services provided by the charter school’s authorizer (usually the local school district). Take the example of a student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) enrolling at a charter school; since the IEP indicates a need for a specialized placement, the student/family would likely be offered space in a program back at a traditional district campus instead of at the charter school.


    • TheMorrigan on Nov 18, 2013 at 1:08 pm11/18/2013 1:08 pm

      • 000

      I am rather confused with this piece. While I agree with the point that “Charter schools are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities,” I also know from numerous studies that charters simply do NOT do that.

      I would add that charters and district schools work better when they partner with everything. Since charters rarely partner with anything, district schools often carry the heavier burden.

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