Charter schools are established and regulated primarily in state law, and there is wide variation in degree to which state legislatures protected the rights of children and families back in the mid-1990s when this new education sector emerged across the states. California’s legislature seems to have taken more care than some other states to protect the rights of children and families in charter schools, but the ACLU of Southern California and Public Advocates have just published a report that exposes poor implementation of the law. The report puts Californians on notice that selection screens being imposed by charter schools are illegal under California law; some of these practices even violate federal civil rights statutes. The joint report of the Southern California ACLU and Public Advocates, Unequal Access: How Some California Charter Schools Illegally Restrict Enrollment, explains exactly what the law says and tells parents how to go about filing complaints when their rights are violated. The report also challenges charter school authorizers and the California Department of Education to enforce the law.
The report explains: “Charter schools are governed by fewer rules than traditional public schools; they have the flexibility to develop unique learning environments and pursue innovative pedagogical approaches. However, under California law… charter schools still must accept all students who apply if space permits. If the school is at capacity, it must use a random lottery to select students. In California, charter schools may not deny admission to students who have struggled academically in their previous schools or push out students who do not meet certain performance standards. Indeed, charters should embrace those students because they may benefit most from the schools’ innovative educational philosophies.” Merely based on their websites, 253 California Charter schools were identified by the Southern California ACLU and Public Advocates as currently violating California law. Because the authors investigated only violations apparent on charter schools’ websites, the report’s authors declare: “The policies identified in this report are likely only the tip of the iceberg.”
The report describes charter schools whose websites present barriers like completing eighth grade math or algebra with a “B” or better, a previous attendance record of 70 percent or more, a 2.0 cumulative GPA for four previous terms, good standing academically and behaviorally, and maintaining a 70% competency level in four academic courses per semester. Other charters require admissions interviews of children and their parents and require that students submit essays as part of their application. To confront such practices, the report summarizes California law, which permits only, “three types of admissions preferences: If applications exceed capacity, schools ‘shall’ hold a ‘public random drawing.’ Preference ‘shall’ be extended to current pupils and pupils who reside in the district. If a charter school was partially or entirely converted from a public school, the school must give ‘an admission preference to pupils who reside within the former attendance area of that public school. If a charter school is located in the attendance area of a public elementary school in which 50 percent or more students are low-income, then the school ‘may give a preference in admissions to pupils who are currently enrolled in that public elementary school and to pupils who reside in the elementary school attendance area where the charter school site is located.'”
Then there are the schools whose websites describe requirements that applicants be proficient in English. In their application procedures, schools inquire about the primary language being spoken at home by the applicant’s family, and one school even stipulates: “Parents are expected to be enrolled in a program to learn English as well.” Legally, warns the report, “(T)he Charter Schools Act… provides that ‘a charter school shall not discriminate against any pupil on the basis of’ certain protected characteristics, including ‘disability, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, [and] sexual orientation.’ It is well-settled that denying English learners equal access to educational opportunities because of their limited English proficiency constitutes unlawful discrimination under Title VI of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act.” The report continues: “Beyond ensuring that charter schools do not enact discriminatory admissions policies, they must also actively identify English learners and provide them with services and instruction to overcome their language barriers.”
The websites of several charter schools are described as requiring families to volunteer at the school for a specified number of hours or pay a per-hour fine for each volunteer hour they miss. The fines described are high—$10 or $15 or $25 per hour. The report cautions: “While schools should encourage familial participation, public schools, including charters, may not require parents to perform work at the school as a condition of their child’s enrollment or participation in educational activities. Such policies discriminate against poor families, single-parent families, non-traditional households, and working parents, and thereby exclude children who may stand to benefit significantly from attending nurturing public schools. Most important, requiring parents or family members of a student to work at a public charter school violates both the California Constitution and the California Education Code.”
The Southern California ACLU and Public Advocates explain that selection screens violate the rights of the very students for whom charter schools were originally designed: “The original vision of charter schools in the 1990s was to provide new opportunities to improve the quality of education for thousands of students living in under-resourced communities… Through admissions policies that exclude vulnerable students by erecting various barriers to entry, charter schools have the potential to create a two-tiered system…. We believe charter schools are viable only if they are open to all students.”