State of Authorizing Report: Special Education

Key findings on authorizing activities and students with disabilities


The National Charter School Study III 2023 from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) had much to celebrate. The strong academic achievement gains for students attending charter schools overall, and for most student groups—especially lower income students and students of color, demonstrated how charter schooling helps all of public education thrive. 

Yet, the same CREDO study found abysmal academic progress for students with disabilities in both reading and math, and across time. While students with disabilities are not homogenous, as a group, the data is clear: they are not receiving a high-quality education to prepare them for postsecondary opportunities. 

Dramatically improving academic outcomes for students with disabilities will take new, better, and more effective approaches from all ecosystem participants, including charter school authorizers. It’s imperative that authorizers ensure charter schools remain free, public, and open to all students—including students with disabilities. We must leverage authorizing as a critical lever for demanding high and rigorous academic standards for every student, actively intervening when schools are not meeting them, and aggressively expanding access when they are.

As part of our 2023 annual national survey of authorizing, NACSA asked the nation’s authorizers about their special education policies and practices, to understand opportunities where authorizing might be strengthened.  

As with prior NACSA surveys, the sample collected is expansive (it includes authorizers overseeing two-thirds of all charter schools in the country), and likely representative of authorizers with some scale (i.e., more than five schools). However, it is less representative of authorizers overseeing relatively few schools (i.e., less than five). Read about how this data sample was collected and reported.

State policy specifies the level of responsibility of authorizers or individual charter schools for the provision of special education services. Authorizers with those responsibilities are typically called the local education agency for special education and have a range of federal and state responsibilities (e.g., reporting requirements, appropriate licensing and placement of special education teachers and support staff, financial billing and reimbursements, addressing formal and informal complaints, and more). These authorizers are found across many different authorizing institutions, including higher education institutions, independent charter boards, local school districts, and others.

Where distinctions are evident, we report on differences between authorizers that have special education responsibilities (AUTH SPED) and individual charter schools that have those responsibilities (SCHL SPED).

It would be a mistake to conclude that authorizers should do every practice included in this report. There may be good reasons authorizers do not engage in some practices (e.g., it would be redundant for authorizers to engage in oversight that the state education agency is already doing well).

We provide this data for deeper investigation and to prompt additional research on how authorizing needs to be strengthened, in order to improve outcomes for students with disabilities.

We report our findings in four areas:

  1. how authorizers staff for special education oversight;
  2. what authorizers require and evaluate in the application process;
  3. what authorizers require specific to a school’s external communications; and
  4. authorizer engagement with individual education plans (IEPs) and closure


How are the nation’s authorizers staffing special education oversight? 

In your work, who attends to SPED oversight?
Staff within your office 70%
Staff within your organization, but outside of your office 75%
External consultants 37%
We do not engage in SPED oversight 8%


Note: Authorizers were able to choose multiple staffing arrangements, which is why percentages do not equal 100%.

NACSA Take: The vast majority of the nation’s authorizers have dedicated staffing for oversight of special education. Nearly ¾ of respondents have staff on their authorizing team and/ or utilize the expertise of others in their organization (e.g., a state education agency authorizer may use the expertise of other state education agency personnel responsible for special education for oversight support). A meaningful percentage use external consultants, which, if high-quality, can provide important supplemental and/or additional expertise. It’s unclear why any authorizer would report not engaging in special education oversight, something future research should explore. 


How important are various elements in the charter application and evaluation process?

Which of the following are required elements of your charter application and rubric?  AUTH SPED SCHL SPED
How the applicant intends to staff special education programming 93% 91%
Plan to evaluate students suspected of having a disability 93% 87%
Student record maintenance, confidentiality, and transfer 93% 71%
How the applicant intends to deliver special education and related services (e.g., in-house or contract out) 90% 94%
Plan to address discipline for students with disabilities 90% 73%
Plan to develop, review, and revise IEPs 87% 73%
Projected revenue and expenditure of special education programming 86% 80%
Applicant’s approach to mainstreaming versus pull-out/targeted service provision 79% 69%
Enrollment procedures for students with disabilities (SWD) 73% 63%
Clear metrics of success for SWD 70% 59%
Plans to continuously improve special education programming 63% 59%
School facility accessibility plans (e.g., ADA, Section 504) 63% 59%
Recruitment plans for SWD 54% 49%

NACSA Take: This question was designed to understand the priority given to these elements by asking if these elements are required in the application and if the authorizer holds applicant teams accountable for detailed implementation plans by scoring them using their rubric. There are areas of near universal adoption like staffing plans and plans for program delivery. There are also areas where the priority assigned is more varied. Of particular concern is the relatively low proportion of authorizers that require and score applicant plans for effectively recruiting students with disabilities. Ensuring schools have strong plans for outreach to a wide diversity of families, including families of students with disabilities, is a prerequisite to ensuring equitable access.


How many authorizers require schools to describe their approaches to educating students with disabilities in various external communication efforts?

Do you require charter schools you oversee to describe their approach to educating students with disabilities in: AUTH SPED SCHL SPED
Recruitment materials 35% 22%
Website 31% 27%
Enrollment materials 55% 40%
Programming 77% 64%

NACSA Take: Authorizer engagement in external communication is an area where changes in policy and practice appear to be needed. While it is possible that schools are doing an adequate job of marketing their approaches, additional authorizer oversight could ensure this happens well and appropriately. The low proportion of authorizers reporting that they require schools to describe their approaches across external mediums could signal that too many schools are not describing, or not appropriately describing, how their programs are designed to benefit all students, especially students with disabilities.


To what degree do authorizers consider student individual education program (IEP) compliance and closure of schools primarily for deficiencies related to  special education?

Which of the following do you utilize as part of your oversight of the implementation of special education services? AUTH SPED SCHL SPED
Review of IEPs to determine compliance with procedural rules and timelines (i.e., correct signatures, annual IEPs, attendance as required) 87% 56%
Review of IEPs to determine compliance with the terms of the IEP (i.e., service minutes being provided) 84% 56%
Review of IEPs to determine grade-level standard alignment 79% 35%
Has your authorizing office ever recommended a charter school for revocation and/or closure primarily for its performance related to students with disabilities? AUTH SPED SCHL SPED
19% 2%

NACSA Take: It’s not surprising to see a much higher proportion of authorizers that have federal and state responsibilities for special education (AUTH SPED) engaging in various reviews of student IEPs, since in many instances they are required to do so, have additional federal/state resources, and more staffing/support capacity. It is noteworthy and positive that more than one-half of authorizers that are typically not required to review IEPs (and frequently do not have additional resources to do so) are indeed reviewing IEPs as part of their oversight processes. 

The relatively low proportion of authorizers reviewing IEP alignment to grade-level standards—especially among those where authorizers do not have federal/state responsibilities—is an area for further investigation and potential concern. It could be that schools are doing an adequate job of ensuring grade-level standard alignments without authorizer oversight, but it may also be that enhanced oversight among authorizers (or other ecosystem actors) could accelerate the achievement of students with disabilities. 

Notably low proportions of authorizers reported recommending closure of a charter school primarily for issues related to special education. Good authorizing during renewal takes into account a range of data and evidence to make merit-based decisions; it appears that the emphasis placed on student achievement among students with disabilities may need some additional attention. Closure is not the best or only answer in all instances, but plans for transformative change appear needed. That includes ensuring authorizers have necessary data to make merit-based decisions, including access to data with small student group sizes (e.g. data that are masked with a low N size), and having access to individual student growth data.


Authorizing looks different in different contexts. One thing, however, holds true regardless of the context: all authorizers should hold schools accountable to high outcomes for all students—including students with disabilities. When this happens, we will together create more high-quality school environments that get every student what they need to be successful.

While more research is needed to understand how authorizers can create the conditions for acceleration of learning among students with disabilities, there are some foundational policies and practices. NACSA encourages authorizers and other policymakers to start by exploring the toolkit we created with the Center for Learning Equity.

In addition, NACSA and the field see emerging promising practices and ideas of how charter schools can offer a wider array of special education settings and supports, and how authorizers can encourage this. In the coming months, watch for profiles of these practices that NACSA will disseminate and amplify.

NACSA is also here to help with needs specific to your context. Whether you are looking to make a series of small improvements or redesign an entire system, our staff is always available for thought partnership and to explore ways we can support your efforts to strengthen practice and process.