Charter Schools and Cyber Charter Schools’ Obligations under IDEA and Section 504
Tanya A. Alvarado, Esquire
More parents are choosing to send their children to charter schools and cyber charter schools (collectively referred to in this article as “charter schools”). The reasons may include seeking a school with smaller class sizes and more individualized attention, improved academic instruction, a desire for instruction focused on an area of interest, or simply finding a school that is safe for their child to attend. For some parents of children with special needs, it is an attempt to find a school that can teach their child to read, write or do math because such attempts at their home schools have failed. In extreme cases, parents are running to charter schools because their child’s unaddressed behavioral needs resulted in numerous disciplinary actions, involvement with the juvenile justice system, or truancy charges filed against the parents by the previous school. In many ways, parents see charter schools as a fresh start for their child with the hope of finding appropriate services where child will meet with academic success.
Although charter schools are created by Pennsylvania law, they are required to comply with federal requirements of the IDEA and Section 504 – from your child’s evaluation to the delivery of services in the least restrictive environment. A charter school must have a written policies and procedures to ensure that its students who are in need of special education and related services are identified, located and evaluated by their charter school. Importantly, the evaluation must be completed within 60 calendar days (excluding the summer months) and must assess all suspected areas of your child’s needs. Depending on your child’s struggles, these may include cognitive and academic levels, assessments for autism, specific learning disabilities, speech and language skills, physical, occupational and visual therapy needs, functional behavioral assessments, emotional needs and social skills needs. The charter school should not inform the parent that it does not have anyone on staff to perform certain educational assessments or that only a medical doctor can identify a diagnosis, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and some emotional diagnoses. The charter school law explicitly permits the charter school to contract with evaluators and service providers if necessary to perform special education evaluations and provide services and programs. If your child has behavioral concerns, has school avoidance issues, or social skills needs, this evaluation can include a functional behavioral assessment, psychological or psychiatric assessment if necessary, where proper methods of addressing the behavior without punishing your child will be identified and a plan developed for implementation.
If your child is identified as needing special education services, the charter school is required to offer an IEP within thirty days of the completion of the evaluation report. If your child transfers to the charter school with an IEP from the previous school, upon your child’s enrollment the charter school must ensure that special education services are available in conformity with the previous IEP or the charter school must develop a new IEP. The IEP must be implemented as soon as possible, but no later than ten school days after its completion. Special education services should be offered consistent with your child’s needs. These services could include research-based instruction in reading, math, written expression, a positive behavior support plan, instruction with organization and time management, therapies such as occupational, physical, visual or speech and language, social skills and counseling. Extended school year services must also be made available to your child if necessary to address their needs. Finally, if a charter school or cyber charter school determines that placement in an approved private school, a private school or a private agency, is necessary to appropriately address your child’s needs, the charter school is obligated to pay for that placement.
Cyber charter schools have the same obligations to provide educational services appropriate to your child’s needs – even if there is no physical school building in which your child receives instruction. This obligation may include making a certified teacher available to meet with your child at home or in a library to deliver special education instruction. If your child has behavioral or social skills needs, these services may include his or her attendance in a social skills group. For children with behavioral needs, a positive behavior support plan that teaches your child to manage frustration and develop coping skills should be implemented in a setting where your child can practice these skills. The delivery of some services may involve some creativity, but together, the parent and cyber charter school can identify appropriate settings for delivery of these services. If your child is not required to attend a specific facility to receive educational services, but your child requires transportation in order to access special education services, then the cyber charter school is required to make that transportation available to your child as part of your child’s IEP.
The IDEA and Section 504 require that your child receive appropriate special education services that address your child’s educational needs. The variety of services and programs that should be made available to your child should not be affected because your child attends a charter school or cyber charter school.