Special ed questions on Colorado charter school applications violate federal law, complaints allege

Advocates have filed civil rights complaints against more than two dozen Colorado charter schools alleging that questions on their application forms about whether prospective students receive special education services violate federal law.

Colorado charter schools enroll students with disabilities at a lower rate than the state average — and at a lower rate than charter schools in most other states, according to a study by the Center for Learner Equity.

The study, commissioned last year by the Colorado Department of Education’s Schools of Choice Unit, identified such screening questions as one reason for the lower enrollment. Even when schools don’t use the question to screen out prospective students, advocates fear parents will be deterred. They might think a school isn’t prepared to serve their child — or doesn’t want to.

The state has convened a working group to improve charter school practices and propose rule changes, but it hasn’t mandated any changes yet.

The complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights identify 29 Colorado charter schools that ask a question about disability status in their application. The federal office has opened investigations into all of them.

The applications vary by school and may ask if the applicant receives special education services or has services and accommodations spelled out in what are known as an Individualized Education Plan or a 504 plan. Some schools ask applicants to provide copies of the plan, or ask if the student has mental health or behavioral challenges.

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Chalkbeat Colorado is a nonprofit news organization covering education issues. For more, visit co.chalkbeat.org.

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