Increasing the dialogue among stakeholders in New Jersey’s special education system

Charter school classroom students saying the pledge of allegiance

By Maria Docherty and Lauren Agoratus, M.A.

With the increased focus in the United States on charter schools and the use of vouchers to support student attendance at private schools, more and more parents of students with disabilities are asking questions about how charter schools and vouchers impact special education. This article provides answers to some of those questions!

Charter Schools

Charter schools are public schools that are established under terms of a local or national charter. Most are founded by professionals. They must operate by their “charter,” which establishes their purpose, etc., as well as federal education laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and relevant state laws. Many charter schools use a lottery system to accept applicants.

A quick look at the data demonstrates that students with disabilities are underrepresented in charter schools, and students with significant disabilities are even more under-represented. A 2012 report from the Government Accounting Office found that charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools ( That report also noted that “anecdotal accounts also suggest that some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling and denying admission to students with more severe disabilities because services are too costly.”

In some states, charter schools have been formed to serve only students with disabilities, resulting in their increased segregation and no opportunities for interaction with their non-disabled peers. A study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes on charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia examined the overall performance of charter schools across multiple subject areas. They found that while some charter schools do better than traditional public schools, the majority do the same or worse.

Also, 37% of charter schools performed significantly worse in terms of reading and math than traditional public schools, compared to only 17% that performed significantly better than traditional public schools.

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies has conducted a study of charter school suspension practices and found that charter schools suspend students with disabilities at two to three times the rate of non-disabled students, and in fact have a higher suspension rate than traditional public schools.

It is important to know that state laws regarding charter schools vary. In 16 states they are considered Local Education Agencies (LEAs) (local districts) and are responsible for full implementation of IDEA, including providing a full continuum of services and placements. In 11 states, charters are considered public schools within LEAs, and it is the local district that is responsible for IDEA compliance. In the rest of the states, charter schools can be either their own district or an option within a larger district. Families of children with disabilities can find out about laws regarding charter schools in their state by contacting their Parent Training and Information Center (see Resources).

Some things families of students with disabilities should remember about charter schools:

  • They can’t discriminate based on disability in application, selection, services, or exclusion after acceptance.
  • Applications should not ask if the prospective student has a disability or needs a particular special education service.
  • Students with disabilities, once accepted, must be provided with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
  • A charter school may not unilaterally limit the services it provides a particular student with a disability.
  • A charter school may not counsel out, i.e., try to convince a student (or parents) that the student should not attend (or continue to attend) the school because the student has a disability.

Check out Know Your Rights: The Rights of Students with Disabilities in Charter Schools from the US Department of Education, which clarifies that students with disabilities in public charter schools and their families retain all of their rights both under IDEA and under Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act.


Voucher programs give families a certain amount of public money to help cover private school tuition. Sometimes called a “scholarship,” the amount of the voucher varies state by state and sometimes by program, grade, or disability category in programs that are limited to students with disabilities. Currently, there are 16 states and the District of Columbia that offer vouchers; each has its own eligibility criteria, but they are usually limited to lower income students, students in low-performing schools, or students with disabilities. In fact, there are 10 states that have voucher programs specifically aimed at students with disabilities.

What most parents of children with disabilities do not know is that when they accept these vouchers, they are giving up their child’s rights under IDEA to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. There is no guarantee that the voucher will cover the entire cost of tuition or related services such as speech, occupational or physical therapy, counseling, mobility training, transportation, etc. In addition, the private schools that accept the vouchers generally do not have to follow the same policies as public schools. While they cannot discriminate against students with disabilities, they can establish their own admission, discipline, tracking, and other policies. They are not required to offer any services beyond those that can be provided with “minor adjustments” to their educational program. So they can even deny admission outright if a student’s needs are considered too significant. And even if they do admit a student with disabilities, they are not required to provide needed academic, behavioral, or other educational interventions and can refuse to continue services at any time.

Unfortunately, the forms that parents are asked to sign when they accept a voucher usually do not inform them that they are waiving their child’s right to a free, appropriate public education including the procedural safeguards that help parents have a say in their child’s education.

Critics of vouchers are also concerned that vouchers increase socioeconomic and racial segregation. Perhaps most important, all of the research that has been reported in the last few years on voucher programs has found that students attending these programs actually fare worse academically compared to their “closely matched peers” attending public school. (See this article at the New York Times).

Another type of “voucher” program is used in some districts when the district says that it cannot provide all the related services on a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). For example, in New York City, parents were given vouchers for related services that were not being provided by their child’s school. Unfortunately, this did not result in students actually receiving the related services. In many instances, parents could not find providers, and even when they identified potential providers, they would not accept the vouchers. In other situations, parents did not have transportation or child care for their other children, so they could not get their child to the service provider. And apparently, no one noticed that children were not able to access related services by using the vouchers, because more than half the vouchers went unused for over a year. It’s not clear why the school system felt that parents would be able to find a provider when the school and district could not do so. You can read more about this in this article in the New York Times.

EDITORS NOTE: It is important for parents to know that under IDEA, private schools are one of the placement options that must be available if it is determined that the local public school classroom is not an appropriate placement option. When the IEP indicates that a private school is the least restrictive, appropriate program, all costs including tuition, related services and transportation are paid by the sending school districts. Students placed in private schools under these circumstances do not lose protections under IDEA. At this time, New Jersey does not offer vouchers for private school tuition for students with or without a disability.

What does this all mean?

Families of children with disabilities are hearing about charters and vouchers in the news and in their communities, and may be thinking about whether or not these options are appropriate for their children with disabilities. Families should carefully weigh the pros and cons of charter schools and vouchers, and speak with their Parent Training and Information Center about their state laws, regulations, and policies regarding special education and charters or vouchers, before making a decision.

About the Authors

Lauren Agoratus, M.A. is the parent of a child with multiple disabilities who serves as the Coordinator for Family Voices-NJ and as the central/southern coordinator in her state’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center, both housed at SPAN, found at

Maria Docherty is the Director of Technical Assistance for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN).

To learn more about school choice programs in other states, including Education Saving Accounts, Vouchers, Tax-Credit Scholarships and Tax Credit/Deduction for private schools, click here.

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