Special Education in California


Charter schools are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities and other unique challenges.

Related Resources
- Charter Schools and Special Education: FAQs for Families
- Explore resources for members, including template documents and checklists for members

  • Print

Charter School Facts

The charter school movement is at the center of education reform in California. An integral part of this reform lies in transforming the ways that students with exceptional needs are served.

California charter schools educate all students.

Charter schools are tuition-free, public schools that are open to all students. As public schools, charter schools are required to enroll and serve students with disabilities in the same manner as traditional public schools. Charter schools understand their responsibility to serve all students, and are committed to providing quality and compliant special education services to students with disabilities. In recent years charter schools in California have increased their capacity and gained flexibility and funding in special education. As a result, they have grown to serve nearly a proportionate share of students with disabilities to that in traditional public schools (10% in charters vs 11%in non-charters in 2016-17).

California charter schools are uniquely situated to provide individualized support to meet the needs of students with disabilities and other challenges.

Charter schools have more flexibility and autonomy than traditional public schools and are uniquely situated to provide innovative, high-quality educational services to students with disabilities. Charter schools not only adhere to all state and federal special education laws, they also have greater accountability to the families they serve. This increased autonomy and accountability have resulted in more students with disabilities served, a wider range of disabilities served, measurable academic strides for students with disabilities, and more inclusive school communities.

California charter schools provide effective interventions through Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.

Research suggests that charter schools are less likely than district schools to classify students as in need of special education services and more likely to declassify them. The reason for this is that charter schools implement Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, which are clearly-defined, team-based, data-driven systems that combine general and special education supports within a framework focused on prevention and intervention, regardless of disability.

California charter schools choose to educate students in inclusive settings.

Charter schools recognize that inclusive communities start with inclusive schools. To embrace student differences, charter schools have made significant strides toward educating students with disabilities, regardless of the type of need, alongside their general education peers rather than in separate classrooms or buildings. According to a recent study, 88% of charter students with disabilities are being served in general education classes for more than 80% of their school day, compared to 53% of students with disabilities statewide. See how one school, WISH Charter School, is delivering an inclusive education to all students.

Challenges and Opportunities

There are many factors affecting enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools. Factors such as parental choice, student need, and incidence of disabilities in the school's geographic region are outside of a charter school's control. Some other factors, however, including authority over placement decisions and access to special education funding, stem from systemic policy barriers that need to be addressed.

California Charter Schools Face Barriers to Autonomy in Special Education

Under California law, charter schools can either operate as "school of the district" for special education purpose or become an independent Local Education Agency (LEA). Historically, state special education laws and policies limited charter schools' ability to secure independent LEA status, which forced many schools to rely on their authorizers for special education services. When operating as a "school of the district", the authorizing district, not the charter school, is responsible for serving students enrolled in the charter school. As a result, charter schools in this arrangement have little ability to design or implement their own special education programs or to hire special education staff that are familiar with the unique educational design of the charter school. Moreover, due to cost-effectiveness and logistical issues, districts typically offer placements in existing district programs at district school sites. Without the authority over special education, charters operating as "schools of the district" cannot build capacity to serve a broad range of students with disabilities. In 2016-17, over 50% of all charter schools in California continue to operate under this arrangement.

The policy environment shifted in 2010 when the California State Board of Education approved an option that permitted more charters to separate from their authorizer and become a Local Education Agency (LEA) for special education. In 2011, a major local policy shift also happened in Los Angeles Unified School District, when the district created a semi-autonomous "LEA-like" option for charters authorized by the District. When operating autonomously (as an independent LEA or in an "LEA-like" arrangement) for special education, a charter school is fully responsible for placement decisions and delivery of services to students with special needs. As more and more charter schools take on this responsibility, they are able to build more capacity, and to serve more students and a broader range of disabilities at their own school sites.

California Charter Schools are Limited to Which Populations They Can Serve

Currents laws allow charter schools to serve students from kindergarten to 12th grade. However, students with disabilities are entitled to services from 0-22 years old. Under the existing structures in California, only traditional districts are legally permitted to provide services to students 0-5 and 18-22 years old and to receive state and federal funding for these services. This puts charter schools at a disadvantage in terms of attracting and serving students in these age groups. This likely also affects the enrollment of students with moderate-to-severe needs.

Charter Schools Often Lack Economies of Scale to Build Their Special Education Programming

Charter schools tend to be smaller in size compared to larger districts. Given that California's special education funding is generated on the basis of the overall enrollment and does not correspond to the actual needs of students with disabilities at each school, charter school often face significant challenges in building a full continuum of special education supports. However, in some California regions, charter schools have unique arrangements with their authorizers or Special Education Local Plan Areas that allow them the opportunity to form consortia, establish shared risk pools, and reallocate funds in a more efficient manner. Learn about the Charter Operated Program in the Los Angeles Unified School District for an example of such an arrangement.

CCSA's Role

Despite challenges on the delivery of services, CCSA has achieved significant reforms so that charter schools can eliminate structural barriers and increase the number of special education services regionally and across the state. In order to accomplish major change in the area of special education and strengthen the charter school movement, CCSA ensures that California charter schools are equipped to provide high quality and compliant special education services that meet a broad range of student needs.

Overall Special Education Goals

The special education advocacy and reform efforts at CCSA are specifically designed to:

  1. Increase the number of students with disabilities in charter schools, measured by the total percentage of growth in students with disabilities served by charter schools; and
  2. Equip charter schools to serve a broader range of unique needs by offering an increased continuum of placement and service options; and
  3. Improve overall achievement of students with disabilities through implementing and sharing innovative best practices.

Target Areas

In order to accomplish these goals, CCSA is targeting four areas that will bring about the greatest impact:

  • Ensuring that charter schools have the infrastructure - including information, services and financial resources - necessary to increase the range of service options available to students with disabilities.
  • Advocating for SELPA and authorizer arrangements that provide the flexibility and autonomy necessary to better serve students.
  • Improving access to comprehensive, accurate, and actionable data necessary to understand the scope and quality of services provided to students with unique needs in charter schools.
  • Advocating on both state and national levels to increase awareness of the successes that the charter setting offers to students from unique populations.

Recent Efforts

Through the advocacy efforts of its Special Education Team, CCSA has made tremendous strides in overcoming the barriers that have traditionally inhibited charter schools in the area of special education. Key Highlights include:

New Report: Sharing Best Practices

CCSA staff visits charter schools across the state to identify successful programs, as well as those needing support, and is empowering schools to build bridges with skilled educators, as well as with parents in their school community. We believe increasing data collection and sharing best practices will result in positive outcomes for charter schools and improved special education delivery. Read the report.

Report: "Special Education in California Charter Schools: All Students Welcome"

CCSA's quantitative research challenges the notion that charter public schools serve fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools by helping identify the impact of policy environments on student enrollment. The report highlights current data on the enrollment of students with disabilities in the most autonomous arrangements. Read the report.

Increased SELPA Options for Charter Schools Seeking LEA Status

By collaborating with a number of SELPAs across the state, we have seen a positive shift in the relationships between charter schools and SELPAs. Included in this change is the increased willingness of SELPAs to admit charters as LEAs for special education purposes. There are at least 30 SELPAs across the state that now serve or are prepared to accept charter schools as LEA members, including 5 charter-only SELPAs.

Authorizer Relationships and Unique MOUs

CCSA staff constantly works to ensure that charter schools have equitable access to special education funding and resources necessary to serve students with disabilities. This includes supporting member schools with negotiating new arrangements and developing innovative Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with their authorizer and SELPAs. For more information and examples, visit this page.

Reorganization of the Los Angeles Unified School District SELPA

Working in a spirit of collaboration and a common goal of creating improved special education arrangements options for charter schools authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District, CCSA staff and LAUSD Special Education administrators worked together to develop a mutually beneficial solution for special education governance, funding, and service delivery. The result was a plan for reorganization of the SELPA that created a Charter Operated Program (COP) that provides 160+ charter schools in Los Angeles with the full autonomy and accountability necessary to serve an increased number and broader range of students with special needs. The COP became operational on July 1, 2011 with 48 participating charter schools. The reorganization created two new, improved options for schools who wish to remain schools of the district for purposes of special education. More information can be found on this page.

Broad Scale Advocacy

To advance special education reform efforts and strengthen the charter school movement, CCSA engages in a variety of broad scale advocacy efforts on behalf of charter school students and families. Some of these efforts include a leadership role on the Advisory Commission for Special Education, participation on the Statewide Special Education Task Force, and engagement with the California Department of Education, State Board of Education, and legislature on pressing special education issues.

Special Education Resources and Trainings

To ensure that all charter schools have the information and resources necessary to offer high quality special education services, the Association continues to provide a breadth of online resources, training workshops, and technical assistance around all aspects of special education.

Ask A Question

From Our Blog

CCSA Offers Media Kit on OEA/OUSD Strike

In preparation for a strike by the Oakland Education Association (OEA) in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), CCSA has

CCSACon: Advance registration ending soon- register by February 28 and save!

The 26th Annual California Charter Schools Conference will feature over 150 breakout sessions, poster sessions, plenaries, networking opportunities and more!