Posted on: Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Charter schools have special-ed obligation

Another day, another charter school gets frustrated with the lack of support from the state Department of Education.

The latest tension between Mother DOE and her stepchildren, the charter schools, is over special-education money.

Charter schools, which this year served 369 students with special-education needs, want direct funding so they can provide special-education services. And who can blame them? It's easier taking care of business with your own money than going through a centralized bureaucracy. Isn't that a principle reason for charter schools?

Of course, by now charter schools must have discovered the drawbacks of being financially tethered to the DOE. Freedom is limited when you're dependent on public money.

For example, last year, the DOE suggested it could compel parents to send their children to DOE-run schools if a charter school could not provide the services they needed.

But that can't work indefinitely because unlike private schools, charter schools cannot turn children away.

By law, the DOE must provide special-education services to all students who require it, regardless of whether they attend a regular, alternative, magnet, Hawaiian-language immersion or charter school.

Consider the case of the Hawai'i Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, which is so concerned about not adequately serving its special-needs population that it's considering filing a civil rights complaint.

We hope it doesn't get to that point. It's not that the DOE doesn't provide special-education services, because it does.

However, a system of providing instead of direct funding such special-ed resources as teachers, tech assistance and equipment hasn't yet been perfected, according to Chuck Higgins, head of the DOE's charter school program.

And it's complicated. While some charter schools don't have the teaching positions they need, others have more than they need, Higgins said. And there are even cases where parents don't tell the schools they have children with special needs until after they're enrolled.

Ultimately, perhaps, it would be easier to give the individual charter schools the money to handle their own special-education budgeting in a timely fashion. Sure, they need close monitoring and regular evaluations to make sure they're meeting the law and the terms of their contract. But they also need the autonomy and flexibility to live up to their ideals.