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School Choice Threatens Illinois Special Ed Programs

One of Governor Rauner’s early priorities is to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Illinois school districts. With Governor Rauner and Mayor Emmanuel now united in their support of charter school expansion, the impact of this change on access to quality special education must be given a good hard look. An excellent short article on the definition of a charter school can be found at the National Alliance for Charter Schools.
The arguments for and against charter schools are increasingly acrimonious with valid points on both sides. Public school advocates contend that charter schools weaken the collective bargaining power of teachers unions (charter school teachers are not in unions) and siphon resources that are essential to public school efforts to improve student performance. Charter school champions counter that because teacher unions have strongly resisted efforts to make teacher accountability more important than job security, the result is underserved neighborhoods are dominated by poor teachers. As to siphoning off essential resources, charter school champions argue that inner city test scores and graduation rates going down at the same time that expenditures per student have gone up is “proof” that public schools have failed to a better job when they are given more money. Bruno V. Manno has written a very judicious and even-handed commentary on the ten most common criticisms of charter schools for The School Superintendents Association (AASA).
The debate aside, it is increasingly clear that charter school expansion is a reality in Illinois. What is not being highlighted nearly enough is that this expansion will lead to a dramatic reduction in special education services available to Illinois children. This threat to special education services was described by this author in a previous blog (Charter Schools: Savior or Trojan Horse?). Now, the threat to special education from this movement is even clearer. Here are the most salient facts:
1. Charter schools are not required to be American Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant. This means that any student requiring handicapped building access may / not be able to attend a charter school.

2. Public schools are legally required to develop, implement, and update Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for children that have been diagnosed in ways that can adversely impact on their school progress. Charter schools, in spite of also being funded by taxpayer dollars, are not required to develop IEPs for those students.

3. Charter schools are not legally required to hire occupational therapists, physical therapists, or speech language pathologists.
4. Unlike public school teachers, charter school teachers are not required to have training in how best to teach mainstreamed special needs students.

5. If a student ends up having special learning requirements after matriculating in a charter school, charter schools can, by failing the student, require them to return to the public school system.


The fact that charter schools are under tremendous pressure to prove their students can outperform their public school peers (a premise that has yet to be proven), makes it highly unlikely that they will choose to focus on special needs students. As charter schools grow in number, the hope is that public pressure will make politicians address the need for charter schools to address the needs of all students if they continue being funded by taxpayer dollars. While numerous educators have highlighted this threat to special education access, there has been no discernable public outcry to make charter schools legally accountable for special education as are public schools. To avoid this disservice to our special needs students, well organized pressure on the Illinois legislature needs to start now. Without it, this de facto reduction in Illinois special education services may become irreversible in the state of Illinois.

Robert M. Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals, LLC

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