Education Agency Cautions U.S. Charter Schools on Special Needs

U.S. charter schools must provide special-education services and avoid discrimination in admissions, academic services and athletics whether or not they receive federal funding, the Education Department said today.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the department’s Office for Civil Rights reminded charter school operators of their obligations under federal civil rights laws. Charter schools, which are privately run public schools, are barred from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, national origin or disability.

“Federal civil rights laws, regulations and guidance that apply to charter schools are the same as those that apply to other public schools,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said in the letter. The department “is committed to supporting the establishment of high-quality public charter schools from which all students can benefit.”

Charter schools have come under criticism for shunning special-needs students because of costs that can strain even the best-financed public school systems. Only 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools have disabilities, compared with 11 percent in public schools, the Government Accounting Office said in a 2012 report.

Charter schools must also provide services for non-English speakers and establish non-discriminatory policies for discipline, Lhamon said in the letter. The department also provided guidance on racial diversity in admissions.

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