A Comprehensive Guide to Charter Schools for Parents and Guardians of Students with Disabilities

Posted in Development and Learning Disability  |  Tagged

by Grace Kearns, Caitlin Katz, Michael Eze, Grant Frazee, and Grace Jensen (GU)

When parents and guardians need to decide where to send their kids to school, the first thing that comes to mind is likely the dichotomy of public and private. However, charter schools are another option to consider. Parents of students with disabilities (SWD) must be selective and their decision-making process could include questions like, “Will this school provide my child with an IEP?” or “Will this school be supportive of my child’s disability?” In this post, we provide an overview of charter schools so that parents can make an informed decision about whether a charter school is the right fit.

Charter schools are fundamentally public schools.  Some are components of typical public schools and are part of the local education agency (LEAs) that supervise all public schools in a community. Others are independent of the LEA and are their own Local Education Agencies (LEAs).

In the District of Columbia (DC), charter schools are evaluated by the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB) and are given a score from 1-100 based on their “performance.” All public schools take test scores and students’ progress into account in measuring how well a school “performs”. Charter schools, however, seem to rely on the results of those test scores more than the traditional public school  as they could lose their charter and shut down if they are deemed ineffective. In DC, performance scores in the yearly evaluations for each school are based on the following four categories: student progress and student achievement based on English language arts (ELA) and math assessments, parent satisfaction based on re-enrollment, and attendance (DC public charter school quality guide, 2020-2021).

Charter schools sometimes focus on a particular field like science or government and attendance is free of tuition. Some, however, have a reputation for being overly selective, and as a result, exclusionary to children with disabilities. To hold charter schools accountable, audits may be conducted by a “board” that oversees charter schools (DC Special Education Audit Policy, 2013). However, there is no guarantee an audit will result in accountability; if the school performs well, it is likely the reputation of the school will come before the experience of a few children.

If you have a disabled child, you may even be dissuaded from enrolling in a charter school. A study in which researchers posed as prospective families in emails to 6,452 charter schools across the US, found that families of SWD were less likely to be responded to compared to families of typically developing students in public and charter schools. Traditional public schools exhibited no discriminatory response rate while charter schools were much less likely to respond (Lancet, et al., 2020).

Charter schools are heavily focused on student performance on tests and other regulated evaluations. The school may even discourage disabled students from enrolling, even though everyone is entitled to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE) if they attend a federally funded school, which includes most charter schools (Barnard-Brak, et al., 2018). Parents and guardians of SWD should consider the following in making their decision:

  • Consider carefully which school has a better reputation for how they serve students with disabilities based on family testimonies.
  • Ensure the school is supportive both inside and outside the classroom. Choosing a school where the culture is invalidating is not conducive to your child’s development academically and socially.
  • Ensure that you are supported. The school must include you in all proceedings and decisions surrounding your child. IEP meetings should be family-centered and encourage your feedback.


Barnard-Brak, L., Schmidt, M., & Almekdash, M. H. (2018). Enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools: Contemporary national and state level findings. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(43). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.26.3276.

DC Public Charter School Board (2020-2021).DC public charter school quality guide. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://dcpcsb.org/sites/default/files/media/file/2020-2021%20Parent%20Guide%20-%20English.pdf.

DC Public Charter School Board (2013, March). DC special education audit policy. Retrieved

April 30, 2023, from https://dcpcsb.org/sites/default/files/2019-01-28-Special-Education-Audit-Policy-Revised_Redacted.pdf.

DC Special Education Cooperative (2022). Parents: frequently asked questions. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://specialedcoop.org/parents/.

Education Forward DC (n.d.), The DC schools landscape: by the numbers. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://edforwarddc.org/the-dc-schools-landscape-by-the-numbers/.

Lancet, S., Rhim, L. M., & O’Neill, P. (2020, June). Enrollment of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.centerforlearnerequity.org/wp-content/uploads/Enrollment-of-Students-with-Disabilities-in-Charter-Schools-and-Traditional-Public-Schools.pdf.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (n.d.), Public and private school comparison. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=55#:~:text=Among%20the%204.7%20million%20K,of%20Two%20or%20more%20race.

O., & O. (2020, December). Questions and answers on serving children with disabilities placed by their parents in private schools. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/qa-parentally-placed-private-schools-12-2020.pdf.

Private School Review(n.d.), District Of Columbia private schools by tuition cost. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from https://www.privateschoolreview.com/tuition-stats/district-of-columbia.