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Cyber Charter Schools and Students With Dis/Abilities: Rebooting the IDEA to Address Equity, Access, and Compliance



This article takes up the question of equity, access, and cyber charter schools from the perspective of disability studies in education (DSE). DSE positions inclusion and educational access as social justice concerns. In doing so, we assert the importance of making visible the social justice implications of the current laws that impact cyber charter schools and students with disabilities. To this end we focus in particular on the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) because it is the central piece of federal legislation that provides for the public education of students with disabilities. Our analysis suggests several changes in the IDEA and state level legislation in order for cyber charter schools to be an available and equitable option for students with disabilities.
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Cyber Charter Schools and Students
With Dis/Abilities: Rebooting the IDEA to
Address Equity, Access, and Compliance
Kathleen M. Collinsa, Preston C. Green IIIb, Steven L. Nelsonc &
Santosh Madahara
a Pennsylvania State University
b University of Connecticut
c University of New Orleans
Published online: 11 Feb 2015.
To cite this article: Kathleen M. Collins, Preston C. Green III, Steven L. Nelson & Santosh
Madahar (2015) Cyber Charter Schools and Students With Dis/Abilities: Rebooting the IDEA to
Address Equity, Access, and Compliance, Equity & Excellence in Education, 48:1, 71-86, DOI:
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Copyright C
University of Massachusetts Amherst College of Education
ISSN: 1066-5684 print / 1547-3457 online
DOI: 10.1080/10665684.2015.991219
Cyber Charter Schools and Students With Dis/Abilities:
Rebooting the IDEA to Address Equity, Access,
and Compliance
Kathleen M. Collins
Pennsylvania State University
Preston C. Green, III
University of Connecticut
Steven L. Nelson
University of New Orleans
Santosh Madahar
Pennsylvania State University
This article takes up the question of equity, access, and cyber charter schools from the perspective of
disability studies in education (DSE). DSE positions inclusion and educational access as social justice
concerns. In doing so, we assert the importance of making visible the social justice implications of
the current laws that impact cyber charter schools and students with disabilities. To this end we focus
in particular on the Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA) because it is the central piece of federal
legislation that provides for the public education of students with disabilities. Our analysis suggests
several changes in the IDEA and state level legislation in order for cyber charter schools to be an
available and equitable option for students with disabilities.
Recent years have seen rapid growth in full-time K-12 cyber charter schools1(Brady, Umpstead,
& Eckes, 2010; Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2012). Despite this recent rapid growth,
what we know about cyber charters schools in terms of quality, cost, effectiveness, governance,
and impact on current issues of (in)equity is limited and emergent (Glass & Wellner, 2011).
Largely unexamined is whether this growth represents progress in terms of increased access to
educational opportunities for students with disabilities.
In this article we take up this question of equity, access, and cyber charter schools from the
perspective of disability studies in education (DSE). DSE questions the deficit ideology that
associates embodied, cognitive, psychological, and emotional variations in human experience as
Address correspondence to Kathleen M. Collins, Pennsylvania State University, Language, Culture and Society, 253
Chambers Building, University Park, PA 16802. E-mail:
Downloaded by [Dr Kathleen Collins] at 09:07 13 February 2015
deviations from an ideal norm and as indicators that a person has been found lacking (Baglieri &
Knopf, 2004; Biklen & Burke, 2006). DSE thus challenges educational segregation and positions
inclusion and educational access as social justice concerns (Collins, 2014; Ferri & Connor, 2005,
Our DSE analysis makes visible the social justice implications of the current laws impacting
cyber charter schools and students with disabilities. We focus, in particular, on the Individuals with
Disabilities Act (IDEA, 2004) because it is the central piece of federal legislation that provides
for the public education of students with disabilities. The intent of the IDEA is to provide equal
access to educational opportunities for students with complex learning and support needs. Our
decision to focus on cyber charter schools reflects (1) the lack of previous literature on this issue
and (2) the high degree of discrepancy between the potential of what cyber charters could offer
children with disabilities and the reality of the lack of governance (as expressed through conflicts
with the IDEA), ensuring that these possibilities are actualized. In this article, we explore this
question: Does the IDEA facilitate equal access to educational opportunities for students with
disabilities when those opportunities are proffered by a cyber charter school?
Given the limited data that exists concerning students with complex learning and support needs
and cyber charter schools, our aim in this article is simply to begin the scholarly conversation.
Although our analysis is limited by the current lack of large-scale data and detailed analyses
on this issue, our work provides a jumping off point for additional empirical and large-scale
studies. We do this by reviewing the existing literature on cyber charter schools and students with
disabilities in relation to the provisions mandated by the IDEA. DSE, which considers equitable
access to educational opportunities a matter of social justice, provides the theoretical lens for our
Disability studies is an interdisciplinary orientation to educational theory, research, and practice
that works from a social and cultural model of disability. In disability studies, embodied, cognitive,
psychological, and emotional variations in human experience are seen as natural (rather than
as deviant or deficient). Whereas a medical model locates dis/ability2within individuals and
proceeds to diagnose and treat their problem, disability studies examines the cultural affordances
and constraints as well as the sociopolitical interests that contribute to shaping a difference into
a disability. A foundational concept of disability studies is the understanding that “disability” is
a socially and politically constructed response to perceived difference.
Disability studies thus assert that differences are made into problems or gifts by the interpretive
and positioning effects of the responses to them—interpersonal, institutional, social, cultural, and
political—and by the constraints and affordances of physical and discursive environments. DSE
applies this understanding to the exploration of dis/ability in educational contexts (e.g., see
Baglieri & Shapiro, 2012; Connor, Gabel, Gallagher, & Morton, 2008; Danforth & Gabel, 2006;
Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012; Ferri, 2009; Gabel, 2005; Valle & Connor, 2011). For example, when
considering achievement and participation in classroom learning environments, DSE asserts the
need to consider ability and disability as distributed across people, forms of literacy, discourses,
and symbolic and physical tools (Collins, 2011, 2013).
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DSE thus seeks to identify and disrupt the deficit ideologies and discourses that shape the
process of othering students whose behaviors, bodies, ethnicities, or linguistic repertoires are
perceived as different (McDermott & Varenne, 1995). Cultural and social conventions, habits,
and expectations work within a given context to define what is accepted as normal and what is
defined as out of bounds and marked as deviant or disabled. Collectively, these expectations and
assumptions are referred to as ableism, which Campbell (2001) defines as:
A network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the
corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully-
human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human. (p. 44)
An important strand of DSE scholarship examines how abelism and racism work in concomi-
tant ways to mark some students as less than others and to perpetuate educational segregation and
unequal opportunity (Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2013; Collins, 2013, 2014; Ferri & Connor,
2005, 2006). Baynton (2001) argues that disability categories have been used to justifyoppression
and connects this argument to historical debates about who has the right to citizenship in the
United States. Disability, Baynton argues, has been used historically to marginalize, segregate,
and disempower people marked as different:
[N]ot only has it been considered justifiable to treat disabled people unequally, but the concept of
disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them
...When categories of citizenship were questioned, challenged, and disrupted, disability was called
on to clarify and define who deserved, and who was deservedly excluded from, citizenship. (2001,
p. 33, italics in original)
This strand of DSE scholarship documents the use of disability identification to label and
segregate students from traditionally marginalized groups, due to their perceived ethnicity, so-
cioeconomic class, or immigrant status (Erevelles, 2005; Ferri, 2009; Ferri & Connor, 2005,
2006). Scholars in this strand of DSE research document the over-representation of children of
color and of children who are learning English as a Second Language in disability categories and
in restrictive, segregated educational settings (Artiles & Kozleski, 2007). As Ferri (2009) asserts,
this practice increased after the 1954 passing of Brown v. Board of Education:
[S]pecial education, like tracking and gifted/talented programs, functioned as a way to sub-
vert desegregation orders after Brown—creating a way to segregate students within schools once
it was impossible to segregate them between schools (Ferri & Connor, 2006). (Ferri, 2009,
p. 419, italics in original)
DSE thus offers two important social justice implications for understanding cyber charters
and access for students with disabilities. First, the reframing of disability is itself a social justice
concern. As asserted by Connor and Gabel (2013), positioning cognitive, embodied, and sensory
differences as natural human variations challenges the “hegemony of normalcy” (p. 101).
Second, DSE scholarship makes visible the legalized segregation created by educationally
sorting children according to disability labels. DSE demonstrates how the “dis/ability apartheid”
(Connor & Gabel, 2013, p. 101) that results from such educational sorting works against the aim
of achieving educational equity through access and inclusion (see further discussions in Collins,
2013, 2014; Connor & Ferri, 2007; Connor & Gabel, 2013).
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Cyber charter schools, or cyber schools, are schools that operate through the Internet and outside
of the traditional brick-and-mortar physical facilities we have come to know as schools (Brady,
Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010). Cyber charter schools are chartered by a state education agency
and funded in whole or large part by public funds, although they are often administered by or
in partnership with large, private, for-profit companies.3Cyber charter schools, like traditional
charter schools, operate as independently governed public schools (Brady, Umpstead, & Eckes,
As they have become more mainstream, cyber schools have grown in appeal (Brady, Umpstead,
& Eckes, 2010; Robelen, 2007). Currently 26 states offer cyber charter school options (Watson,
Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp, 2012). The number of states with cyber charter schools nearly
doubled from 16 states in 2003 to 26 states in 2009 (Brady, Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010). The
number of actual operating cyber charter schools more than tripled from 60 schools in 2003
to 195 in 2009 (Brady, Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010). Roughly 275,000 students were enrolled in
fully online schools in the 2011–2012 school year (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, & Rapp,
2012). Estimates show that cyber schools account for roughly 2% of all charter school enrollment
nationally (Brady, Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010). Students are not only leaving traditional schools
but also leaving home schooling to use the services offered by cyber charter schools (Brady,
Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010). Aside from these broad stroke descriptors, there have been few
studies examining who enrolls in cyber charter schools and why. In one study, limited to parents
of home schoolers who chose to enroll their children in online charters, Marsh, Carr-Chellman, and
Sockman (2009) identified three reasons for the cyber charter choice: (1) customizable curriculum
and individualization, (2) the appeal of no out-of-pocket costs for curriculum materials (materials
for public cyber charters are supplied by tax payer dollars), and (3) “a disposition of hope” (p.
Because of their novelty and the challenges they pose to traditional ideas of schooling, cyber
charter schools require educators, especially educational policymakers, to question existing laws
and how these laws sync with online schooling (Robelen, 2007). However, there have been few
analyses of the legal and policy implications of the burgeoning development of cyber charters
(Brady, Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010; Glass & Welner, 2011). Very few studies have analyzed the
ways that the regulation and operation of online schools, in general, and cyber charter schools, in
particular, intersect with the federal law governing all schools, the IDEA. Here we examine this
issue as a matter of social justice. It is the intent of the IDEA to ensure equal access to educational
opportunity for all students with disabilities. Does the law, as it is currently written, facilitate this
access when the educational opportunity is proffered by a cyber charter school? We discuss this
in the analysis that follows.
The IDEA is federal legislation that provides for the public education of students with disabilities.
First passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) and signed
into law by President Ford, the purpose of EAHCA was to ensure that all children, including those
with disabilities, were assured the right to a public education. Prior to the passage of EAHCA,
students with special needs were being shut out of the public education system. There were
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millions of students with disabilities who were being under-educated or not enrolled in school at
all. The passage of ECHA changed that by providing federal money to states as an inducement to
ensure that all students with disabilities were entitled to a free and appropriate education (Martin,
Martin, & Terman, 1996; Yell, Rogers, & Rogers, 1998). ECHA was reauthorized by Congress
in 1990, 1997, and 2004. In 1990, the title of the legislation was changed to the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The most recent authorization of IDEA, in 2004, is
sometimes referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA).
In this analysis we use IDEA and IDEA 2004 to maintain consistency with federal government
documents (see and
The main goal of IDEA 2004 (and its previous instantiations) is that students with disabilities
are included in the public school system in a meaningful way. To accomplish this goal, the IDEA
has a number of important provisions that states must follow to qualify for funding. Child Find is
a provision that states that schools and school districts must have policies in place to identify and
evaluate students who may be in need of special education services. Another important provision
is that students receive an appropriate education. This is accomplished through an Individual
Education Plan (IEP), which is specifically designed for each student and includes academic
goals and any related services that are needed for the student to meet these goals. One of the most
important provisions of IDEA is that students are to be placed in the least restrictive environment
(LRE) that meets their individual need. Public education agencies are required to provide special
education students with the most inclusive education appropriate to the individual student.
When the IDEA was reauthorized in 2004, cyber charter schools were a relatively small
part of the educational landscape. Since 2004, both the number of cyber charter schools and
the number of students enrolled in cyber charter schools have experienced substantial growth.
Because of this sudden growth, the reality of cyber charter schools was not examined during
the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA (as evidenced by a complete failure to include any legislation
aimed at online schooling more generally, or at cyber charters, in particular).
Cyber charters are, indeed, unique, and some of the core aims of IDEA do not account for
the reality of online learning. For instance, the broad breadth of delivery of instruction for cyber
charter schools reveals the difficulty in assessing student behaviors. Cyber schools can deliver
instruction independently, asynchronously, and synchronously (Ahn, 2011). In independent deliv-
ery, the cyber school resembles a correspondence course in that the work is completed completely
independently from the instructor and others in the course (Ahn, 2011). In asynchronous deliv-
ery, the cyber school provides more interaction between teacher and student than the independent
delivery model; still, each student works at an almost independent pace, choosing when to access
instructional materials (Ahn, 2011). Finally, synchronous delivery provides the most interaction
between teacher and student as both parties are required to be online at the same time (Ahn,
In all three scenarios, instructors are sometimes unable to observe student interactional and
communicative behaviors that might assist in supporting students with identified cognitive and
linguistic disabilities. In independent and asynchronous models, the teacher may never observe
the student’s interactional behavior since both teacher and student are never required to share
time online. In synchronous models, the teacher and student may share online time, but there is
no mandate that the teacher and student see or hear each other in the synchronous model, since
for example the two could merely share a chat room experience. To date there is no research
documenting the relative efficacy of these three modes for student learning in a full-time K-12
cyber charter setting.4
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Cyber charter schools could, thus, provide a direct contradiction of the mandates and core
goals of IDEA. Whatever the instructional model of cyber schools, cyber charter schools must
be able to implement the various components of IDEA. In all three instructional models, there
are legitimate questions related to Child Find. There are also additional questions related to other
IDEA areas, such as least restrictive environment and state requirements to monitor local IDEA
compliance. Finally, cyber schools provide implementation problems for appropriate delivery of
services under IDEA and a broader concern about access to services for students in cyber charter
Cyber Charter Schools and Student with IEPs
IEPs are perhaps the most important aspect of special education. IEPs provide a definitive road
map for each student’s education. IEPs recognize that every student with disabilities is unique
and has different needs. Every IEP must specify the academic goals for the student, including
any modifications needed in the delivery of instruction. Little has been written about delivery of
instruction to students with disabilities enrolled in cyber charter schools. Parents play an important
role in the cyber education of their children with special needs and in many cyber charters parents
are expected to deliver and monitor instruction. IDEA 2004 requires that all teachers providing
instruction to students with disabilities meet the highly qualified teacher standard as set forth
in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA; reauthorized in 2001 as No Child Left
Behind). If parents are providing even partial instruction in a way that is mandated by the online
curriculum, will cyber schools be in compliance with the highly qualified teacher or licensure
requirements of the states? In Johnson v. Burmaster (2008), the Court of Appeals ruled that
parents were serving as unlicensed teachers in a public school. The Court found that parents
were playing a role in delivery of instruction and were doing more than providing support to
their children. It found that the cyber charter school was in violation of Wisconsin Law regarding
the certification of teachers. The legislature responded by amending the cyber law statute to
specifically exempt parents from being considered as teachers under the law. Other states have
not addressed the issue of whether a parent is considered a teacher.
Access to Cyber Charter Schools for Students with Disabilities
Data on the effectiveness of cyber charter school have been mixed. A study of charter schools
in Pennsylvania found that students enrolled in cyber charter schools performed worse than
students in traditional public schools and physical charter schools (Center for Research on
Education Outcomes [CREDO], 2011). Performance was measured by scores on standardized
state assessments (CREDO, 2011). There was no specific finding regarding students with complex
learning needs enrolled in cyber charter schools. However, students with complex learning support
needs in charter schools, overall, performed at a level close to their peers in traditional public
schools (CREDO, 2011). Similarly, a 2011 study of student performance in gthe K12 Inc. cyber
charter schools found that students’ performances on state reading and math assessments were
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lagging in comparison to those students in traditional public schools (Miron & Urschel, 2012).
Conversely, cyber charter schools may offer benefits to certain students, including reducing stress
for students who feel anxiety in a regular classroom and offering extended class time for students
who may need to go at a nontraditional pace. It is therefore important that students with complex
learning and support needs have cyber schooling as a feasible option.
While the number of cyber charter schools in the United States keeps rising, the number
of students with complex learning and support needs enrolled in cyber charter schools remains
low. In Wisconsin 3.3% of students enrolled in cyber charter schools received special education
services, compared with 14.4% of students enrolled in a traditional public schools (Wisconsin
Department of Instruction, 2010). In Louisiana and Hawaii, 2% of cyber charter students had IEPs,
and in South Carolina 4% of cyber charter students did (M¨
uller, 2009). In a report to Congress in
2012, the General Accountability Office (GAO) found that charter schools, overall, enroll fewer
students identified as having disabilities than traditional public schools (GAO, 2012). The data
from Louisiana and Wisconsin provides support for this conclusion with regard to cyber charters.
Both traditional brick and mortar charters and cyber charters are contributing to increased school
segregation of students with complex support needs (see Collins, 2014).
In 2000, the Department of Education (DOE) issued guidance regarding charter schools that
Under Section 504 and Title II, you may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of
disability. For example, you may not deny admission to a student with a disability solely because of
that student’s need for special education or related aids and services. Students with disabilities must
have the opportunity to meet any appropriate minimum eligibility criterion for admission, consistent
with the mission of the charter school and civil rights requirements. (DOE, 2000, p. 7)
The caveat in the guidance is the last sentence. Cyber charter schools must provide reasonable
accommodations so that students with special needs are able to access cyber charter schools.
Further, guidance from the Office of Special Education stated that cyber charter schools must
abide by provisions of IDEA. Since then, there has been no additional guidance issued by the
Department of Education. The recent GAO report indicates that the Department of Justice has
recently opened investigations into complaints of discrimination against students with disabilities
in charter schools more generally. The GAO report has the possibility of producing guidance
that could focus, even minimally, on issues of access to cyber charter schools for students with
Child Find
Child Find requires that children with disabilities within a state’s boundaries are located, identified,
and evaluated regardless of where those children are to be found, the housing status of those
children, or the severity of the child’s disability (IDEA, 2004). States also must develop and
implement a practical method to determine which students with disabilities are being served
by the special education process (IDEA, 2004). Child Find must include all children who are
suspected of having an IDEA disability and of being in need of special education services (Child
Find, 2006). The Child Find mandate may be the most important provision of IDEA since Child
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Find is the provision that requires states to take affirmative actions to seek out students in need
of special education services.
Child Find, traditionally the responsibility of state education agencies (SEAs), is often passed
down to local education agencies (LEAs). Cyber charter schools may struggle to implement Child
Find programs because they cannot rely on economies of scale. Where a local, traditional school
district may be able to leverage a number of schools in a variety of locations across a geographic
area, the cyber charter school does not have this advantage. If the cyber charter school serves as
its own LEA, it will have to bear the entire cost (both human and financial) of conducting Child
Find activities. Additionally, the Child Find activities of the cyber charter school may be both
repetitive and wasteful since the local, traditional school district is already tasked with conducting
Child Find activities in the given geographic area. Because SEAs often pass down their Child
Find responsibilities to LEAs, state statutes and regulations will need to address the issues of
Child Find and cyber charter schools to avoid a need to rewrite IDEA to address cyber charter
Notwithstanding the written language of individual state statutes, implementing effective and
compliant Child Find procedures is difficult. Developing procedures that comply with Child
Find’s underlying goal of servicing all students in need of special education is complicated by
IDEA’s mandate to conduct Child Find for students not even enrolled in the public school system.
For instance, states must assure that preschool aged students as well as students enrolled in private
schools are accounted for in their Child Find procedures. Despite statutory language that dictates
the opposite, some states have still struggled with implementing Child Find while adjusting for
brick and mortar charter schools. In Louisiana, The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a class
action lawsuit on behalf of students with disabilities against Paul Pastorek, former Superintendent
of Education in the State of Louisiana, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the Louisiana
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The lawsuit, P.B. et al. v. Paul Pastorek et al.
(2010), addresses a broad range of IDEA violations and alleges rampant Child Find violations in
New Orleans, the nation’s jurisdiction with the highest proportion of public charter schools.5
P.B. et al. v. Paul Pastorek et al. (2010) illustrates the difficulty in implementing and enforcing
Child Find. Statutory language, while providing the basis for future legal complaints, does not
necessarily assure the provision of the services codified in statutory code. Child Find responsi-
bilities are harder to understand and enforce when each charter or cyber charter school is its own
LEA, as is nearly the case in New Orleans. As documented in P.B. et al. v. Paul Pastorek et al.
(2010), when charters serve as their own LEAs, Child Find requirements are largely unmet. Fur-
ther, the provision of services and the delivery of instruction in cyber schools support a conclusion
that the various types of assessments available in traditional school settings may not be available
in cyber charter schools (e.g., teacher observation of student behaviors during instruction).
Least Restrictive Environment
Cyber schools complicate considerations of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for students
with disabilities. IDEA requires that children with disabilities, regardless of their placement,
be educated with children without disabilities as much as such an arrangement is appropriate
(IDEA, 2004). Additionally, IDEA authorizes the removal of a child with a disability from the
regular education environment only when the child’s disability is so severe that education in the
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regular education classroom with the use of supplemental aids and services cannot be attained
satisfactorily (IDEA, 2004). Specifically the IDEA 2004 states:
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private
institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special
classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational
environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education
in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
(IDEA, 2004, §1412(a)(5)(B)
As defined by the IDEA, an educational setting that does not include interaction with other
children, in general, and with children without disabilities, in particular, is therefore considered
more restrictive.
Related to LRE is the continuum of alternative placements. The Code of Federal Regulations
requires public agencies to provide a continuum of alternative placements to serve the needs of
children with disabilities (Continuum of Alternative Placements, 2006). The continuum of alter-
native placements must include “instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools,
home instruction and instruction in hospitals and institutions” (Continuum of Alternative Place-
ments, 2006, p. 28). The continuum must “make provisions for supplementary services to be
provided in conjunction with regular class placement” (Continuum of Alternative Placements,
2006, p. 28).
Also related to the concept of Least Restrictive Environment is the consideration of the location
of services. The child’s placement should be based on the IEP and should be as close as possible
to the child’s home (Placements, 2006). Unless otherwise mandated by the IEP, the child should
be educated in the school he or she would normally be educated in if not for the disability
(Placements, 2006). Ultimately, the Code of Federal Regulations states that part of the Least
Restrictive Environment consideration should account for whether the quality of services needed
for educational benefit would be harmed by the placement (Placements, 2006).
Cyber charter schools, based on the language in the Federal Register, have no explicit position
on the continuum of alternative placements. The most closely related placement is home instruc-
tion. A cyber charter school is therefore a placement that foregoes regular classroom instruction,
special class instruction, and instruction in special schools. Any concept of Least Restrictive En-
vironment is null and void when applying Least Restrictive Environment to cyber charter schools.
The Least Restrictive Environment for cyber charters is already a very restrictive environment. In
its essence, the individualized and segregated nature of cyber schooling contradicts the inclusive
spirit of IDEA.
The location of the placement also is important to the analysis of how Least Restrictive
Environment interacts with cyber schools. According to the Federal Register, the IEP is the
document that determines the location of the placement. To some extent, cyber schools may and
may not satisfy the location requirements of the Federal Register. The Federal Register requires
that students with disabilities be educated in the school closest in proximity to their home (which is
usually synonymous with the school that the student would attend but for the student’s disability).
Because the schooling aspect of a cyber charter occurs in the student’s home, the proximity arm
of the analysis is met. The school component of the analysis is more difficult. Courts have not
established a consensus definition of school as it pertains to cyber charters.
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Because the Supreme Court has not decided on any cases involving Least Restrictive Environ-
ment, there is no guidance on how to interpret the IDEA provisions mandating students be placed
in the Least Restrictive Environment. The circuit courts of appeal have split on how to determine
if a student has been placed in a Least Restrictive Environment. Some courts of appeal have
adopted the Roncker Portability Test, which asks whether the supports provided in a segregated
educational setting can be provided in an integrated classroom. If the answer to this question is
“yes,” then the student must be educated in an integrated, general education classroom.6Other
courts of appeal have adopted the two-part Daniel R. R. Test. The first part of this test asks if
inclusion in a general education setting, with appropriate supports, is possible. If such inclusion
is determined to be impossible, the second part of this test asks if the student is integrated as fully
as possible while being placed in a segregated setting.7At least one court of appeal has merged
the two tests to develop its own separate test for determining whether a student has been placed
in a LRE. This test relies on both the Roncker and the Daniel R. R. tests. Finally, at least one
court of appeal has rejected a “bright line test,” or clear, objective legal standard, for determining
whether a student has been placed in a LRE in favor of considering individual and contextualized
factors on a case-by-case basis.
An analysis of Least Restrictive Environment case law reveals concerns for the cyber char-
ter movement. Case law from each court of appeal emphasizes the congressional intent to
include students with disabilities in the regular education classroom. Under the Daniel R. R.
Test, the analysis ends if the state cannot prove that it has tried to include students with disabil-
ities in the regular education classroom. Again, as defined by the IDEA (2004), cyber charter
schools are already more restrictive than the regular education classroom because they segregate
students with disability labels from interacting with peers without such labels. Cyber charters
thus violate the Daniel R. R. standard. The Roncker Test is virtually null and void since there is no
way for progress in an inclusive setting, as compared with progress in the more restrictive setting,
to be measured. Like Roncker, the Ninth Circuit’s test is irrelevant to cyber charter schools. The
Ninth Circuit test relies on analyzing the student’s progress in an inclusive setting. This is not
possible under the Ninth Circuit test for the same reasons that it is impossible under the Roncker
Test: Cyber charters are already a restrictive setting under IDEA.
Cyber charter schools, likely due to their recent development, have not yet given rise to
lawsuits that might trigger conflicts with the Least Restrictive Environment provisions of IDEA.
The seminal Least Restrictive Environment cases do not address the reality of online schooling,
in general, or cyber charters, in particular. Given the interpretation of IDEA, it may be necessary
for Congress to modify IDEA in a manner that guides the courts in interpreting the statute relative
to cyber charter schools.
Although federal legislators and jurists have failed to address the interaction between cyber
charter schools and IDEA, scholars and some state-level policymakers have undertaken the task
of aligning IDEA with online learning. Schwartz (2012) argues that cyber schooling is a more
restrictive environment than the traditional classroom setting because it precludes students’ from
interacting with peers. To the contrary, Rhim and Kowal (2008) assert that the Least Restrictive
Environment is the actual cyber charter school. Schwartz (2012) and Rhim and Kowal (2008)
disagree on one primary issue: Where do we start the examination of cyber charters in relation
to the continuum of alternative placements? Rhim and Kowal (2008) conclude that the position
of cyber charters on the continuum is reliant on the cyber charter school’s distinction as an
LEA or a member of another LEA. If a cyber charter is a part of an existing LEA, it might
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have a position other than the beginning of the continuum. If this is the case, the automatic
placement of a student with an IEP into the cyber charter may be a violation of the least restrictive
environment requirements of IDEA. If the cyber school is its own LEA, which most of the charter
and cyber charter schools are in the United States, Rhim and Kowal (2008) argue that the general
education classroom becomes synonymous with the cyber school classroom. In this case, there
is no violation of the Least Restrictive Environment requirement (Rhim & Kowal, 2008).
Questions will remain regarding cyber charters and Least Restrictive Environment until either
the federal courts or Congress clarifies how IDEA’s inclusive spirit interacts with the independent
nature of cyber charters. The Schwartz (2012) argument and the Rhim and Kowal (2008) argument
reveal the nature and content of each side’s respective stance. Schwartz thinks that the inclusive
spirit of IDEA and the independent nature of cyber charters are incompatible. Rhim and Kowal
believe that there is unquestioned compatibility, especially where the cyber charter school is a
part of the existing LEA (a rare situation). States are likely to embrace Rhim and Kowal because
they simplify the legal issues created by cyber schools under the Least Restrictive Environment.
South Dakota has already issued guidance stating that the LRE for cyber charter students is the
cyber charter school setting, unless the cyber charter setting also operates as a segregated special
education classroom. In essence, Rhim and Kowal’s approach creates a legal fiction where the
only violation of Least Restrictive Environment is a cyber charter special education classroom.
To date, no federal court nor Congress has made any effort to clarify the role of the Least
Restrictive Environment requirement in light of the arrival of cyber charter schools. Issues of LRE
are ripe for judicial challenge or legislative overhaul as the interest in parental choice—supported
by cyber charter schools—where parents can enroll their students at whatever school they choose,
conflicts with IDEA and its interest in increasing the contact time between students with and
without disability labels in public schools.
The existence and expansion of cyber charter schools could complicate IDEA-required
state monitoring. IDEA requires states to monitor IDEA compliance by LEAs (IDEA, 2004).
The SEA need not be the only arm of the state that conducts monitoring activities under IDEA
(State Enforcement, 2006). Because SEAs must monitor IDEA compliance, there is a need to
allocate resources, both human and financial, to meet the monitoring mandate. As the number of
LEAs increases, the number of monitoring requirements also increases. A state with 65 LEAs
might expect to spend considerably less money, time, and human capital on monitoring than a
state with 500 LEAs. Both the IDEA and the Federal Register are clear that IDEA monitoring
must happen on the LEA level.
Whether states choose to identify cyber charter schools as independent LEAs or to include
them as part of previously existing LEAs will determine the state’s difficulty in complying with
the monitoring mandate of IDEA. Some states have included charter schools and, presumably,
cyber charter schools as part of existing LEAs. These states will continue to conduct IDEA-
required monitoring in the same manner as they have conducted monitoring in the past. Other
states authorize charter schools such that the charter schools and, presumably, cyber charter
schools become their own LEA. These districts may complicate state monitoring efforts. States
that authorize cyber charter schools to operate as their own LEA will also require a larger-scaled
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monitoring effort. For instance, if every charter school in a city is its own LEA and the city has
50 charter schools, the state must monitor all 50 of those charter schools for IDEA compliance.
If one of the charter schools is a cyber charter school, the circumstances are similar; the state
must monitor that cyber charter school separately from the existing LEA. A state’s choice of
whether to authorize cyber charter schools as their own LEA, as opposed to authorizing the cyber
charter schools as part of an existing LEA, will dictate the need to revise IDEA to encompass
geographical policing (such that all schools in a given metropolitan area are compliant), as
opposed LEA-based policing (requiring that each LEA, regardless of geographical positioning, is
compliant with IDEA). As currently constructed, IDEA favors LEA-based monitoring as opposed
to geographic based monitoring.
Provision of Services
Cyber charter schools are required to provide all related services that a student is entitled to receive
based on the student’s IEP. For traditional public school systems, economies of scale make such
provisions relatively easy (although such services are not guaranteed), as most districts employ
speech, physical, and occupational therapists who provide access to services across the district or
sometimes within individual schools. Students can receive required services through the course
of the school day or school week, based on the schedule of the employed service provider.
For cyber charters, such provisions are not as simple. Students enrolled in cyber charters, by
definition, receive instruction and their services at home—or, at least, in a remote location. In
some cases, services could possibly be provided virtually. IDEA, however, requires schools to
provide the appropriate and beneficial services. Cyber charters may have students spread over
a wide geographic location, necessitating contracts with several providers throughout the state.
Cyber charters may face difficulty in providing mandated services because of the geographic
breadth and the related expenses associated with providing services to individuals in remote
and non-concentrated locations. Traditional schools enjoy the benefit of having all students
needing services in one location, whereas cyber schools must discover a method of providing
services to students in a variety of locations. This is particularly true for students in rural areas
where there may be difficulty in locating service providers as well as a greater geographic
Cyber charters also raise questions about the delivery of related services. For example, for
many students with disabilities, socialization is an important goal of a student’s IEP. How can
a student receiving instruction and services at home have socialization goals included in their
IEP, or are these important goals not included? Some cyber charters have addressed this is-
sue somewhat by having field trips and social activities for students. However, little is known
about how this may work for students in very rural settings or those for whom travel poses
State legislatures have responded differently to these challenges. Pennsylvania’s charter statute
states that each school acts as its own LEA (Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2004). To
overcome issues of geography in providing services for special education students enrolled in a
cyber charter school, the school district where the student lives must provide the cyber charter
with assistance in related services. Local school districts are not responsible for providing any
related service nor are they required to pay for any service. Cyber charters bear the responsibility
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to retain appropriate service providers to be in compliance with a student’s IEP. In Wisconsin,
cyber charters are authorized within a specific district and are part of an LEA (Wisconsin
Statute §118.40(8)). There are no statewide cyber charters in Wisconsin. Students who live in a
district without a cyber charter may use the open enrollment plan in Wisconsin to register in a
cyber school located in a different district. Under open enrollment, schools may deny admission
to students who are pending a special education evaluation and students for whom they will
not be able to provide services (Johnson v. Burmaster, 2007). Access to a cyber charter and
the opportunity to enroll in one for students with disabilities thus varies on a state-to-state
Our initial analysis of cyber charter schools makes it clear that legislators and policymakers
concerned with equal educational access for students whose social, emotional, cognitive, or
embodied differences have been identified as disabilities need to address the conflict between
current laws, such as the IDEA, and the management of cyber charter schools. The following
recommendations may help resolve emerging issues as they relate to cyber charter schools
complying with IDEA. Based on our review, it is recommended that:
All states that have authorized cyber charter schools should have legislation that specifically
addresses cyber schools and students with disabilities.
States should explicitly address Child Find procedures, as they relate to cyber charters,
within state legislation.
All cyber schools should be required to provide detailed plans on how they will provide
mandated services.
All IEPs of all students enrolled in cyber schools should include details of instruction
delivery and methods of adapting cyber instruction to meet students’ individual needs.
Detailed reporting should be required for all students with identified disabilities enrolled
in a cyber charter school, including curriculum used and how it relates to the general
curriculum, related services, and providers.
As cyber schooling continues to grow, legislators must consider placing cyber schooling on
the continuum of alternative placements. Doing so would position cyber charters as a legitimate
educational placement option for students with complex support needs. Importantly, including
cyber charters on the continuum of alternative placements also would open cyber charters to
the critiques necessary to negotiate the problems that currently exist between cyber charters and
IDEA compliance. As currently written, the IDEA does not facilitate equal access to educational
opportunities for students with disabilities when those opportunities are proffered by a cyber
charter school. Indeed, our analysis suggests that without such revision to the IDEA, cyber
charters will continue to contribute to increased educational segregation of students with complex
support needs.
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1. In this article we use the term “cyber charter schools” to refer to full-time, online, K-12 charter schools.
In the literature these schools are also called “virtual charter schools,” “virtual charters,” and “cyber schools”
(Brady, Umpstead, & Eckes, 2010; Glass & Welner, 2011; Marsh, Carr-Chellman, & Sockman, 2009).
2. Disability studies scholars often represent disability as “dis/ability” to call attention to the mutable and
socially constructed nature of perceptions of “ability.
3. See, for example, the discussion of K12 Inc. in Marsh, Carr-Chellman, and Sockman (2009) and Glass and
Wellner’s (2011) overview of the involvement of private and for-profit enterprise in public charter schools.
4. For discussion of meta-analyses comparing face-to-face and online instruction see Glass and Wellner
5. An analysis of evidence and argument presented in P.B. et al. v. Paul Pastorek et al. (2010) illustrates
that corporate school reform and the school privatization movement, which have led to the creation of a
tiered school system in New Orleans, are the most recent examples of resistance to educational integration
of students based on perceived race, ethnicity, and dis/ability (Collins, 2014).
6. The Roncker Test was first adopted by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeal in Roncker v. Walter (1983).
7. The R. R. Test was first advanced by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal in Daniel R. R. v. State Board of
Education (1989).
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Kathleen M. Collins is an assistant professor of Language, Culture, and Society and Co-
Director of the Center for Disability Studies in the College of Education at Pennsylvania State
University, University Park, and the reward recipient of the 2012 Ellen Brantlinger Junior Scholar
Award for outstanding work within Disability Studies in Education. Through analysis of the
processes and consequences of dis/ability identification, her program of research aims to disrupt
patterns of inequitable educational opportunities for students so identified.
Preston C. Green, III, is the John and Carla Klein Professor of Urban Education at the
University of Connecticut. He is also a professor of educational leadership and law. He holds a
J.D. from Columbia Law School and an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Steven L. Nelson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Administration at the
University of New Orleans, where he researches school choice law and policy’ impact(s) on
minority and special education populations. He holds a J.D. from the University of Iowa College
of Law and a Ph.D. from the Pennsylvania State University.
Santosh Madahar is a Ph.D candidate in Education Theory and Policy at the Pennsylvania
State University, University Park. Santosh holds a JD and a Masters of Science in Special
Education and her research focuses on the intersection of law and policy.
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... Crouse, Rice, and Mellard (2018) found that teacher preparation programs have yet to equip preservice teachers with the knowledge and experience needed to teach SWD in an online setting. Moreover, the lack of quality professional development has prevented in service teachers from acquiring the necessary knowledge to properly teach in an online environment (Collins, Green, Nelson, & Madahar, 2015). For example, Rice (2017) qualitatively interviewed 14 special education teachers who taught online. ...
... How should students without webcams participate in a synchronous video chat, or how should they access the course platform when a cell phone is their only device? For disabled students, is the least restrictive environment conceived more as exclusion rather than inclusion (Collins et al., 2015)? Which students have access to a safe, distraction-free learning space that is conducive to learning? ...
Borders—territorial, economic, political, and ideological—are processes of social division. They monitor and exclude and are regulated, patrolled, and maintained by an array of power regimes, but borderlands are also sites of movement, agency, and resistance. Likewise, mathematics is used as a border that divides and politicizes. In this article, we seek to explore how the field can disrupt and transform borders in mathematics education. We draw on border and third space theories to challenge the ontological and epistemological borders in mathematics education that are taken as normative yet reify exclusion through the following questions: (1) What is mathematics? (2) Who can do mathematics? (3) Where is mathematics done? We situate these questions within the COVID-19 pandemic as context of continued injustice. We call for the field to be disobedient and ready itself for the changes that must come so the field can create a humanizing and just alternative.
... • Monitor student progress through the online course and intervene as early as possible when problems arise (Rice & Carter, 2015). • Provide instructional strategies and other specific support to students with disabilities that includes, but moves beyond, Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) when appropriate (Collins, Green, Nelson, & Madahar, 2015;Marteney & Bernadowski, 2016). ...
Full-text available
This is an entire Special Issues of the Journal of Online Learning Research. These articles were submitted and peer-reviewed and then subjected to 2 rounds of revision.
... Likewise, students who return to traditional public schools from charter schools are slightly more likely to receive special education services than are students who remain in charter schools, but this comparison is not statistically significant (Ni, 2010). At the national level, few statesponsored charter school laws provide direct and clear guidance on how to best educate and/or protect the legal rights of students with disabilities (Rhim, Ahearn, & Lange, 2007;Collins, Green, Nelson, & Madahar, 2015). The fact that state charter school laws do not clearly outline efforts to protect students in charter schools who have been identified as disabled is problematic sinceNi (2010)argues that charter schools may have less capacity or willingness to support special education students. ...
Full-text available
Attaining successful outcomes in school and life requires a process of supports and individualized learning experiences that begin long before high school graduation. This need for supports and planning early is true for all learners but particularly important for vulnerable populations, such as individuals with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities are at increased risk of poorer long term outcomes such as increased high school dropout and lower employment rates (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knockey, 2009). However, we know that if we begin planning early and provide supports early there can be significant changes in long term trajectories. To this point, early transition planning has typically referred to the early teenage years, around high school entry. Yet, we know that particular early learning experiences beginning at birth, such as curriculum based home visiting or high quality preschool, have been linked to school readiness, post-school, life, and even long-term health outcomes (Shonkoff, 2010; Schweinhart, 2005). Continuity and alignment are key to success transitions and post school outcomes. Therefore, it is important we begin viewing transition as a lifelong process beginning at birth. In this chapter the authors utilize Kohler’s well-known theoretical framework of research-based practices in transition (Kohler, 1996; Kohler, Gothberg, Coyle, & Fowler, 2016) to align and discuss key evidence-based practices that are linked to successful post school outcomes and span from birth to adulthood.
The rapid transition from face-to-face to online teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic provided unprecedented experiences for Adapted Physical Education (APE) teachers while they have had many different emerging roles, demands, and expectations related to program delivery. The purpose of this study was to examine APE teachers’ experiences teaching online during COVID-19. Participants included 11 APE teachers from the south region of the United States (8 females, 3 males). Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with each participant. Thematic analysis was used to analyse the data. Data analysis resulted in five themes: ‘initial thought: how are we going to even do this?’, ‘challenges in teaching online’, ‘collaboration: key to overcome challenges’, ‘Parents’ support is critical’, and ‘it’s doable, but I am over it’. Despite the challenges experienced by the participants during COVID-19, they were able to navigate and adapt the online teaching; however, the quality and delivery of instruction declined.
This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal ( This article has been retracted at the request of the Editors-in-Chief. After a thorough investigation, the Editors have concluded that the acceptance of this article was partly based upon the positive advice of one illegitimate reviewer report. The report was submitted from an email account which was provided to the journal as a suggested reviewer during the submission of the article. Although purportedly a real reviewer account, the Editors have concluded that this was not of an appropriate, independent reviewer. This manipulation of the peer-review process represents a clear violation of the fundamentals of peer review, our publishing policies, and publishing ethics standards. Apologies are offered to the reviewer whose identity was assumed and to the readers of the journal that this deception was not detected during the submission process.
The overrepresentation of racial minorities in special education programs and the continued under-matriculation of racial minorities in postsecondary institutions demonstrate the deep intersectional legacies of racism, classism, sexism, and ableism (Reid & Knight, 2006).
Full-text available
Ability Profiling and School Failure, Second Edition explores the social and contextual forces that shape the appearance of academic ability and disability and how these forces influence the perception of academic underachievement of minority students. At the book’s core is the powerful case study of a competent fifth grader named Jay, an African American boy growing up in a predominantly white, rural community, who was excluded from participating in science and literacy discourses within his classroom community.
Full-text available
Reading Resistance confronts longstanding exclusionary practices in U.S. public schooling. Beth A. Ferri and David J. Connor trace the interconnected histories of race and disability in the public imagination through their nuanced analysis of editorial pages and other public discourses, including political cartoons and eugenics posters. By uncovering how the concept of disability was used to resegregate students of color after the historic Brown decision, the authors argue that special education has played a role in undermining school desegregation. In its critical, interdisciplinary focus on the interlocking politics of race and disability, Reading Resistance offers important contributions to educational research, theory, and policy.
The academic field of disability studies has expanded rapidly over the last two decades or so. With that expansion has also come some growing ambiguity about exactly what is meant by the term “disability studies.” This article reviews the history and evolution of disability studies as an interdisciplinary approach to research and scholarship. While acknowledging the broad range of interests and approaches that can fall under the umbrella of the “disability studies” label, we argue that it may be useful to present a set of core themes or beliefs that seem central to disability studies as a field if it is to fulfill its promise as a truly different way of exploring the meanings of disability in society. Finally, we argue that disability studies should be of special interest to members of TASH and others with particular interest in the lives of people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities.
This article has no abstract.
Background Online learning in K-12 education has grown rapidly in the past decade. Cyber charter schools (CCSs) have been a particularly controversial form of online school, but there is very little scholarly examination of these new organizations. As CCSs expand, policymakers and stakeholders have a critical need to understand how to evolve the charter school policies that govern these new school forms. Focus of Study Through a three-site case study, this paper (1) explores what current charter policies govern CCSs and (2) outlines the practices in these schools that might illuminate future policy needs. Specifically, the findings highlight how cyber charters problematize existing charter school policies in the areas of authorizers and governance, teacher policy, and student achievement. Research Design The study presents an exploratory, comparative case study. The exploratory analyses illuminate implications for how policymakers understand governance, teacher policy, and the evaluation of student achievement in cyber charters. The comparative case design also highlights how different state policy contexts might influence the practices of CCSs. Conclusions Cyber charter schools introduce new ways of delivering public schooling. The study shows how state leadership is vital to coordinate student enrollment across geographic boundaries, funding mechanisms, and conflicts between CCSs and established stakeholders. This paper also illuminates how teaching and learning practices differ in an online environment and introduces questions of teacher preparation and professional practices. Finally, CCSs in this study serve unique, niche student populations that opt out of the traditional school system. These considerations are vital for evaluating student achievement in cyber charters.
This book’s mission is to integrate knowledge and practice from the fields of disability studiesand special education. Parts I & II focus on the broad, foundational topics that comprise disability studies (culture, language, and history) and Parts III & IV move into practical topics (curriculum, co-teaching, collaboration, classroom organization, disability-specific teaching strategies, etc.) associated with inclusive education. This organization conforms to the belief that least restrictive environments (the goal of inclusive education) necessarily emerges fromleast restrictive attitudes (the goal of disability studies). Discussions throughout the book attempt to illustrate the intersection of theory and practice.
The academic field of disability studies has expanded rapidly over the last two decades or so. With that expansion has also come some growing ambiguity about exactly what is meant by the term B disability studies. [This article reviews the history and evolution of disability studies as an interdisciplinary approach to research and scholarship. While acknowledging the broad range of interests and approaches that can fall under the umbrella of the B disability studies [label, we argue that it may be useful to present a set of core themes or beliefs that seem central to disability studies as a field if it is to fulfill its promise as a truly different way of exploring the meanings of disability in society. Finally, we argue that disability studies should be of special interest to members of TASH and others with particular interest in the lives of people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities.