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“School Choice” for Students with Disabilities. Part 1: Public Schools

Every school-aged child in the U.S. has a public school that they can attend once a parent registers them. Parents also have a right to choose to teach their child themselves in a home school, or they can enroll their child in a private school that they are admitted to. For many of today’s parents, choosing a school for their child is not quite that simple. In a two-part blog series, we will take a look at public and private school options.

Part 1: Public Schools

All public schools must follow federal and state laws regarding students with disabilities, such as IDEA and Section 504. These laws give students the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Public schools have to provide special education services and accommodations for students who need them because of a disability. If a student requires specially designed instruction, an individualized education program is created by an IEP team, which includes the parents. The IEP team makes decisions about the amount and type of special education services and supports that the student will get.

In most cases, school system administrators make the decision about which school the child will actually be assigned to.  Most children with disabilities attend the same school that they would go to if they did not have a disability. Other children may require specially designed instruction and services that are not available at the neighborhood school. These children are supposed to be assigned to the school closest to home that can meet their needs.

Parents who desire to have more control over their child’s education often want to know about any school options that may be available for them to select as a matter of choice. The following is a list of public school options, any of which may or may not be available in a particular community. There are also things that parents should think about when considering each option.

  • Year-round Calendar- Some school systems allow parents to choose between schools that operate on a traditional calendar that has a long summer break, and a year-round calendar that gives students several shorter breaks throughout the year. For many children, the shorter breaks allow them to make more consistent progress because they do not loose skills or get “rusty” over a long school break.
  • Magnet Schools– These schools follow the standard course of study, but also offer an enriched curriculum or special instructional approach based on a particular theme, area of study or philosophy. When considering a magnet school it is important to look for a good match between the student’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. For example, a child who has difficulty with oral expression in his primary language may not be the best candidate for a language immersion magnet where most of the instruction is in a second language.
  • Charter Schools- Like magnet schools, they may have a particular focus or mission that sets them apart from regular public schools. In North Carolina, charter schools operate independent of the larger local school systems around them and they do not have geographic boundaries for attendance. Because they are public schools, charter schools do not charge tuition. They may or may not provide some sort of transportation assistance. In NC, charter schools may also use unlicensed teachers for up to 50% of their instructional staff. This creates opportunities as well as challenges.

While charter schools do not get to hand-pick their students, some students may have disability-related needs that cannot be adequately addressed within a particular charter school. For example, a school that was granted its charter based on having a college preparatory curriculum, would not be required to develop a totally different series of courses for a high school student who has a significant intellectual disability.

Many parents like the idea of a smaller school and possibly smaller class sizes. However, charter schools also have fewer in-house staff resources to address special needs than a regular school system. Most charter schools do not have a school nurse or behavior specialist on their staff.  They may contract with private providers for services such as evaluations and speech, occupational or physical therapy. They may have only one or two special education teachers, and the person who functions as the Special Education Director may not have a special education background at all. The staff limitations may negatively impact the school’s ability to effectively address the challenges of students with significant, complex or uncommon disabilities.

If you are considering a magnet or charter school for your child:

  • Check out the website of any schools that you are considering. Pay particular attention to the information found under headings such as “About our school” or “Academics.” Looking at the staff list may give you an idea of who is available to provide student support services and what the school’s priorities are.
  • Think about whether the things that make that school different from others is a good match with the things that make your child a unique individual.
  • Attend an Open House or arrange a personal tour. 
  • Ask questions about how they address the needs of students with disabilities.
    • If the response is that they do not have any students with disabilities, consider that a red flag.
    • If they describe something that sounds like a one-size-fits-all approach, ask what happens with students who do not benefit from that approach.
  • If relevant, ask how the school handles challenging behavior.
    • Listen for mention of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS)
    • Be wary if they talk about “zero tolerance” policies and behavior contracts, focus solely on punishment, or if they say that they do not have any behavior problems at that school.
  • Positive signs can include mention of flexibility; willingness to make adjustments; emphasis on addressing individual student needs and/or learning styles; use of outside resources or consultants; commitment to on-going staff development; teachers with specialized training and experience relevant to your child’s needs; collaboration with parents; and anything else that may be very important to you and your child.

School choice works best when parents have enough information to make informed decisions.