February 2011 Newsletter: Charter Schools and the Special Education Cooperative Model

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Charter Schools and the Special Education Cooperative Model


Solving the puzzle of providing special education for charter school students has been difficult. Research suggests that for a variety reasons--including limited resources and expertise and difficulty in coordinating what is available--assembling the pieces has not been a snap. But providing appropriate services to students with disabilities is not an option. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, are required to do so by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


One model for charter schools to provide special education is the cooperative. This month's newsletter feature article is drawn from a forthcoming study conducted by the American Institutes for Research and offers guidance to those considering the collaborative model. It draws on the experience, methods, and operating context of eight special education cooperatives. The research included reviews of documents and interviews with 19 people who have started, led, or participated as members in special education cooperatives serving charter schools. The article also includes descriptions of the cooperatives and research references and resources to further understand the issues and consider the value of implementing or adapting the model.

Special education cooperatives are common in public school environments. Some districts or states require public schools to buy into a shared risk pool, often referred to as a Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) or a Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA), to provide special education services. In other areas, particularly rural regions, schools or districts may voluntarily create such cooperatives to share scarce personnel and resources to serve students with disabilities. The local education agencies (LEAs) that oversee traditional public schools are typically well established and familiar with navigating the various local, state, and federal special education mandates and maintaining a relationship with state education agency (SEA) special education departments. Autonomy is a fundamental part of the operating theory of charter schools.  For special education, the legal identities and links to LEAs and SEAs for charter schools are often cloudy, as is the responsibility for services and how to provide them. Some charter schools without the internal capacity to provide special education services or without strong links to LEAs have sought to develop alternative strategies to provide these services, such as developing or joining a cooperative. For the study participants, the motivation to form charter cooperatives came from a perceived need driven by factors such as the following:

  •  A citation for noncompliance
  • Limited experience of special education staff
  • Desire for a professional learning community to connect to colleagues in similar positions
  •  A need to strengthen the connection to existing special education infrastructure (e.g., federal, state, and district services and supports)
  • A need to better serve more students through shared services

Being the designated special education expert at a charter school can be lonely position. "The special education teacher is sort of seen as the expert no matter if you are in the first, second, or seventh year of teaching," said one special education teacher, discussing the motivation to start a cooperative. "You are left on your own, which can be isolating." But the teacher also said that talks with other special education coordinators snowballed. "We all talked to each other and got more and more [special education coordinators] together to tackle big issues to work with districts, states, attorneys, and our school leaders and be that support for each other," the teacher said.

The basic purpose of a special education cooperative is to pool resources to better leverage and coordinate services. It might not be feasible for a single charter school with 5 students with severe disabilities to acquire certain in-house expertise and technologies for use only in its classrooms, or it may be difficult to find a qualified expert who is willing to consult for part-time work. But joining together to purchase such services or equipment to help 30 students with similar needs across several school sites is more plausible. Putting a person with extensive experience coordinating special education services in a cooperative leadership role offers multiple charter schools a resource to help more efficiently address other special education-related needs, such as deciphering federal and state special education regulations, negotiating with education agencies for resources, and staying abreast of special education developments.  

What It Takes for a Special Education Cooperative to Succeed

Interviews with special education cooperative officials show that the factors for a successful cooperative cover a wide range, including the need for strong leadership with an understanding of the national and local policy context, committed and active membership, strong relationships among members, close geographic proximity of members, and sufficient and reliable funding.

Skilled, Knowledgeable, and Committed Leadership

In building a cooperative, there is no substitute for having a leader with deep knowledge about special education policy. Navigating the complex requirements of IDEA can be a tall order. What exactly does the law mean when it says that special education students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment? It also is important for leaders to have long-standing and trusting relationships with other stakeholders in the community and beyond. Leaders can then tap into those relationships when, as one cooperative member put it, "we get stuck between a rock and a hard place."

"Bottom-Up" Commitment

Getting commitments from the rank and file to start and sustain cooperatives plays a key role in the effectiveness of the program. It can be a particularly tough challenge for charter schools because, as one cooperative member explained, "they all have different philosophies and mentalities." Adjusting services and benefits is required to accommodate changing demand and capacity. One cooperative with many partner schools used a survey to identify common needs among its members, while another tried to informally identify needs during meetings.

Trust and Relationships

Clear strategies are needed to build and maintain relationships among members, with leaders emphasizing the importance of regular communication.

Geographic Proximity

Special education cooperatives that draw on charter schools located close to each other have an advantage in finding common ground because of the likely similarities in student populations, perspectives on local issues, and common challenges. In addition, close proximity, though it does not guarantee success, makes it easier to share service providers and resources and have face-to-face meetings.

Adequate and Sustainable Funding

Well-defined financial agreements and plans that cover funding sources, such as cost-sharing arrangements and member dues, are needed to help ensure ongoing solvency. The services offered must be balanced with the amount of funding available. Interviewees with knowledge about discontinued cooperatives noted that a failure to provide adequate services or communicate the benefits of membership played a key role in the cooperative's downfall. Setting expectations for the level of ongoing financial support needed from members helps sustain the commitment to the work.

Eileen Ahearn, a veteran special education administrator and researcher who served eight years as the executive director of a collaborative of school districts and also has worked with charter schools, said that sustaining a special education cooperative is no panacea. "It sounds like a perfect way to go," Ahearn said in an interview with the National Charter School Resource Center, where she is an Advisory Board member. "There are times when it works, but more times when it doesn't," she said. "It takes a very high level of skill on the part of the person who is running the co-op."

Structures and Levels of Services Vary for Special Education Cooperatives

The types of special education cooperatives reviewed for this report varied by governance, the level of commitment required from the members, and the range of services and benefits provided, among other factors. The cooperatives reviewed ranged from providing a basic framework for sharing ideas with minimal obligations to fully staffed organizations providing direct services that required substantial commitment on the part of the members.


Volunteer members manage some of the cooperatives reviewed, with the exception at the outset of a paid special education expert. Member leaders reported spending from 5 to 20 hours a month on cooperative activities. Minimal dues are the primary or only source of funding and are used for professional development opportunities and meetings. Services offered include professional development, legal guidance, and technical assistance targeted for groups.

In New York City, for example, cooperatives reviewed in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan all began in 2005 as part of a larger New York City Special Education Cooperative, becoming their own cooperative because the close proximity of the schools made it easier to meet regularly. Each member in these individual cooperatives is required to pay annual dues of $200. The cooperatives are staffed by officer-members who are elected and do not receive a stipend. New York City charter schools are their own LEAs, but they must work through the traditional district for the provision of special education services. For this reason, slots for representatives from the district are included among the officers of the cooperative.

The Brooklyn Special Education Cooperative, consisting of about 31 schools, focuses on helping new charter schools serve students with disabilities by providing professional development, standard documents, and training modules. Members meet monthly to discuss challenges and share practices. The Bronx Special Education Cooperative focuses particularly on making connections with existing special education infrastructures, including state and district resources to support the needs of its member schools. The Manhattan Special Education Cooperative, with about 20 members, recently has been undergoing changes in the focus of its work. The cooperative participates in New York City-wide special education training for charter school members, a program run by the Brooklyn Cooperative, and shares information about training opportunities. 

Funded Position

The more involved cooperatives reviewed have one or two highly knowledgeable people working part time or full time, with at least one person serving as the executive director or sharing that role. Member dues are combined with other sources of funding, such as foundation grants, to fund the cooperative and support deeper services, including Medicaid billing, a newsletter, and the brokering of service providers.

The New Orleans Special Education Cooperative began in 2010 and has 29 members, most located within the city limits. But a few schools are far from the city, a factor that reduces the level of participation. Member dues and private sources fund the cooperative. Signing a memorandum of understanding that details the cooperative's vision is required when joining the cooperative. The cooperative's offerings include one-on-one technical assistance, legal guidance, and best practices and a hotline that members can call for assistance. The cooperative's staff also helps identify service providers for members. The cooperative plans to hire a full-time executive director in early 2011.

The Washington, D.C., Special Education Cooperative began in 1999 as a collaboration of about 13 charter schools and a now-defunct charter school resource center that served area charter schools. The impetus for the cooperative was to bring special education expertise to charter schools. State and federal grant programs initially supported the cooperative, but it is now funded by member dues. The cooperative has 25 charter schools, all located within Washington, D.C. Each school elects a representative to serve on the cooperative's governing board and attend about three cooperative meetings annually. In addition, members must attend a monthly membership meeting. The cooperative focuses on providing technical assistance, program support, advice, and advocacy. Additional services, such as Medicaid billing, are available on a fee-for-service basis.

The Austin Area Special Education Cooperative, started in 2000, is a higher intensity cooperative. The Texas Education Agency provided seed money to start the cooperative, but, after three years, the cooperative had to sustain itself without state assistance. The cooperative serves 7 charter schools in the greater Austin area, with its major purpose to share access to services, including speech therapy and occupational therapy, and a licensed specialist in school psychology for evaluation. The services are provided by cooperative employees. Member schools sign a shared service agreement at the beginning of each school year, and they share the costs of the cooperative. The cooperative receives some support from its regional service center, which is part of the state infrastructure that provides support to all schools, such as access to training and information. The cooperative began with an experienced executive director. However, after becoming established after four years, the member schools decided to use the executive leadership funds for other purposes. Member schools now use a shared leadership structure, with one of the member schools providing the bulk of the cooperative's administrative support. Representatives from each member school must attend monthly board meetings as part of the shared leadership structure.

Multiple Staff

Other cooperatives have a paid executive director as well as staff specialists serving the member schools, which are required to be their own LEA. The executive director functions as expert, facilitator, coordinator, communicator, and advocate, as well as the manager of the specialists. Resources pooled from each charter school fund the cooperative staff and services. Costs are divided equally among members or by applying a graduated payment plan where larger schools carry a larger share. Offered services include staff physical therapists, speech and language specialists, and nurses-whose services are provided directly to students.

In California, the Shasta County Special Education Consortium started in 2000 when a K-8 school chartered by a high school district needed special education support. The SELPA supported the cooperative start-up and has continued to provide some aid for the cooperative's activities. A charter school must become its own LEA and then apply for membership. Potential members must undergo a financial review and sign a contract to share costs. Member schools also receive support for mediation or other legal actions. The cooperative's infrastructure consists of a director, a financial agent, and providers of direct services. Students receive direct services from the cooperative, including psychology services and speech and language therapy. Schools and service providers receive professional development. Nonmember charter schools may receive some limited fee-for-service benefits, as resources allow.

And, finally, in Indiana, the Virtual Special Education Cooperative was started in 2005 in response to a state law requiring that all charter schools have a special education director on the school's staff. To relieve the burden of the requirement, one of the charter school authorizers began the cooperative so that licensed special education teachers, paid by the cooperative, could coordinate or oversee and mentor special education practices and services. But the cooperative was discontinued because the member schools indicated that the cost was not worth the benefit and decided to handle the work individually. The main challenge was that the member schools were not in close proximity to one another, and the cooperative-provided licensed teachers were unable to adequately meet the needs of the member schools.




  • June 20-23: The National Charter School Conference 2011, themed "Because Every Child Can Succeed," will be held at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Registration is open, and information about the program, accommodations, and discounts is available through the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools
  • August 1-3: The Office of Special Education Programs of the U.S. Department of Education will hold its 2011 Leadership Mega Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, located just outside Washington, D.C. Online registration is expected to be available in May. A wide range of sessions are planned to increase opportunities for collaboration and networking.
  • October 24-27: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers will host its 2011 Leadership Conferenceon Amelia Island, located near Jacksonville, Florida.

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