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Charter Schools and Your Rights

Published
October 27, 2021
Topics
Advocacy, Special Education

What is a charter school?

A charter school is an independently run public school. Unlike community schools, which are run by elected community superintendents, a nonprofit Board of Trustees governs the decisions a charter school can make with the public funding it receives. As a result, charter schools have the freedom to establish their own policies, design their own educational program, and manage their human and financial resources.

Who can apply?

Anyone eligible for a public school can apply to a New York City charter school, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

How do I know if a charter school is a good fit?

Charter schools must accept students with disabilities, but they are not equally accommodating. Independent reviews, school handbooks, and descriptions on school websites will help you determine which schools are more supportive of students with disabilities. Independent school review sites like Insideschools.org can give a clearer understanding of the student experience with statistics about the student body, student achievement, and about how many students with disabilities attend the school.

School handbooks are generally available on a school’s website and can give you a sense of the school’s vision, policies, and expectations, so you can consider how the environment will work for your child. Look for key words and ideas in the handbook (e.g. responsibility, diversity, rigor), the description of the school, its mission, and how they address the following:

  • Special education: All schools have special education services, but their handbook may not be specific. Don’t assume specific programs, like a 12-1-1 classroom, are available. Always ask.
  • Discipline: If a handbook devotes multiple pages detailing its discipline policy, it may indicate an inflexible, “no-nonsense” approach, which could be a concern if your child has behavioral challenges.
  • Promotion and holding students over: Discuss the charter school’s promotion policies and the process that leads to retention for a child with an IEP. What intermediate steps are taken and at what point are parents brought into the conversation?

What questions can I ask during a school tour?

  • What specific special education services are available for students with disabilities?
  • What are the academic and behavioral expectations?
  • What is the school’s approach to discipline?
  • Do most students with disabilities remain at the school through graduation?
  • What athletic and extracurricular opportunities are available, and are they linked to academic/behavioral requirements?

What are my rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

Charter schools are required to provide special education services. However, a charter school determines the type of services it will provide and may not offer all programs. The NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) is responsible for providing services and programs when the charter school does not. Parents have the right to, and should, contact the Committee on Special Education (CSE) to request evaluations, reopen cases, submit requests, or get assistance. NYCDOE has primary responsibility for all the steps in the special education process as well as the delivery of services. Children with disabilities who attend charter schools and their parents retain all rights and protections under Part B of IDEA procedural safeguards, including access to Special Education Mediation, Impartial Hearings, and State Complaints. 

How can I submit a complaint?

Since charter schools are privately run, complaints are made to the school’s Board of Trustees, the authorizer of the school, then the Board of Regents. Charter schools follow their charter or plan of operation, not necessarily all NYS or NYCDOE regulations. The NYS Charter Schools Act states that a parent, as well as any other individual, who believes that a charter school has violated the law may complain to the school. Charter school complaints must follow a specific procedure.

Submitting an Informal Complaint

  • The school is required to provide you promptly with their complaint policy in writing, including how and to whom to direct your complaint.
  • The school’s Board of Trustees must hear the complaints first. The Board of Trustees often delegates that power to the principal, a committee of the board, or a neutral third party. Please check with your child’s charter school to determine its specific complaint procedures and which parties they involve.
  • If the parent has tried to address this issue with the school’s leadership and Board without a satisfactory result, a formal complaint can be filed with the school’s authorizer, or the education organization in charge of your school.

Submitting a Formal Complaint

  • Familiarize yourself with the school’s guidelines and contact the school’s
    leadership. Begin by contacting school leadership to try to resolve any violations, issues, or complaints. Before doing so, familiarize yourself with the school’s policies, guidelines, and reference materials, such as parent handbooks, student discipline policies related to your concern, dress code pamphlets, and school-issued memorandums. Determine whether the school’s actions related to your complaint fall within the school’s policies.
     
  • Appeal to the school’s Board of Trustees. If you’re not satisfied with the outcome or decision after contacting school leadership, you may appeal to the school’s Board of Trustees. The Board meets publicly on a regular basis. Parents are encouraged to either contact the Board directly to schedule items on the meeting agenda or contact the school/parent committee that deals with such matters.
     
  • Appeal to the school’s authorizer. If after the appeal you are not satisfied with the Board of Trustees’ decision, and if your complaint involves a violation of either the school’s policies or its charter, you may submit a formal complaint to the school’s authorizer. You can find your school’s authorizer and their contact information on the Charter Schools Authorizers page on schools.nyc.gov.
  • Appeal to the New York State Board of Regents. If you are still not satisfied with the outcome after going through the first three levels of the complaint process, write to: The NY State Board of Regents, NY State Education Department, Charter School Office, Room 465 EBA, 89 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12234, 518-474-1762. You may also email charterschools@mail.nysed.gov. The subject line should include the school name and the word “Complaint.”