Special Education and Disability Requirements

Charter schools in Arizona “may limit admission to pupils within a given age group or grade level” and “may provide instruction to pupils of a single gender” (A.R.S. § 15-184(G)(H)). But they cannot limit the number of special education students they enroll or turn away students with disabilities or special needs because they don’t offer special education programming or accommodations.
Federal law makes clear that charter schools must provide students with learning and/or physical disabilities “a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs…” (20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)). In Arizona, there’s also a state law that mandates charter and district schools “develop policies and procedures for providing special education to all children with disabilities within the district or charter school” (A.R.S. § 15-763(A)).
In addition, charter schools generally may not ask during the enrollment process if a prospective student has a learning or physical disability. Nor can they ask if a student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan, both of which spell out a student’s learning needs and the services or accommodations the school will provide. These questions may be asked but only after enrollment so that schools don’t give an impression that the IEP or 504 plan will be used to determine a student’s chances for enrollment. An exception to this rule arises if a school is “chartered to serve students with a specific disability,” such as the Arizona Autism Charter School, which focuses on the educational needs of children with autism (Know Your Rights: Students with Disabilities in Charter Schools, U.S. Department of Education Office’s for Civil Rights (2016)). In cases like this, schools may ask about disabilities during the enrollment process and focus on educating students with a particular disability but must remain open to all students.
Still, close to half of charter schools in Arizona we analyzed ask during the enrollment process if a student has a disability and needs special education services. Only a few make it clear that it is for the purpose of continuing the services. At least six charter schools also place an enrollment cap on the number of students with special education needs, which violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in multiple ways and an Arizona statute that states a charter school shall not limit admission based on a student’s disability (A.R.S. § 15-184(F)). Furthermore, some schools have tried to convince parents during the enrollment process that the school is not a good fit for their children with disabilities or special needs, a problematic and potentially unlawful practice often called “counseling out.”
The Rising School (Tucson): The school’s special education and resources department “is currently full, per guidelines set by the Arizona Department of Education. Thus, any student with an IEP will be put on our waiting list.” A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education said the agency has no such guidelines. He added that the school’s policy is not only unethical, but also conflicts with state and federal laws.
AmeriSchools Academy (Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma): “Special Education placements are limited to a capacity of ten (10) students for each school site. Students in excess of this number are to be wait listed with provisional registration.” According to the school handbook, the governing board is the entity that approves the capacity guidelines for admission.
Children First Leadership Academy (Phoenix)*: “If your child receives Special Education, please make sure to have the most recent IEP and MET with you. All documents need to be reviewed by the SPED department before the final decision is made for enrollment.”
Sequoia Pathfinder at Eastmark (Mesa)*: “If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, you will need to send special education paperwork to our SPED department before enrollment…They will contact you to discuss your child’s needs before enrollment. Unfortunately, we cannot accept enrollment paperwork until SPED has reviewed the student’s paperwork.”
  • Schools must make clear that there is not a cap on the number of students with disabilities who can enroll.
  • Enrollment documents should make clear that the school will provide special education services as required by state and federal law. Every school that receives state and/or federal funding must provide special education services.
  • Schools cannot condition enrollment upon the receipt of special education materials. Special education paperwork should not be required prior to enrollment.
  • Enrollment paperwork should be accessible to students and/or parents with disabilities.

*Since this report was first published, the Children First Leadership Academy and Sequoia Pathfinder Academy at Eastmark enrollment pages have been updated to reflect equitable policies and practices. 


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