Over 20 percent of all California charter schools have enrollment policies that violate state and federal law, according to the report “Unequal Access,” released in August by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and Public Advocates of San Francisco. Charter schools in other states use some of the same enrollment policies.
Among the violations cited in “Unequal Access” are admission requirements that violate the California Charter Schools Act, which requires charters to “admit all pupils who wish to attend,” regardless of academic performance, English proficiency, immigration status or other factors.
“We hope this report brings to light practices that prevent charter schools from fulfilling their obligations to all students who seek access,” said Victor Leung, a staff attorney with the ACLU SoCal. “The report should make it clear to all California charter school authorizers and operators that they cannot cherry pick the students they enroll.”
The study examined policies at most charter schools across the state and found that at least 253 violated students’ rights by:
- Denying enrollment to students who do not have strong grades or test scores;
- Expelling students who do not maintain strong grades;
- Denying enrollment to students who fail to meet a minimum level of English proficiency;
- Selecting students based on onerous, pre-enrollment requirements, such as essays or interviews;
- Discouraging or precluding immigrant students from attending by requiring information about pupils’ or parents’ immigration status;
- Requiring parents to volunteer or donate money to the school.
“The idea behind charters was never to create private academies with public funds,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates. “Charter schools, like regular public schools, need to be open to all students. Admission requirements and processes that limit access or discourage certain kinds of students have no place in the public school system.”
While the report is the first of its kind to be based on a broad survey of charter admission policies, concerns about these illegal policies surfaced earlier. In 2013, Public Safety Academy in San Bernardino ran into trouble after the school sent letters to 23 students whose grade-point averages had fallen below a 2.0 in one semester. The letter advised them to enroll in another school. Officials at the charter school changed their policy after being contacted by the ACLU SoCal.
In 2014, Public Advocates released a report documenting the charter practice of requiring parents to volunteer “service hours.” The report led to new guidance from the California Department of Education, explaining that requirements for volunteer hours are illegal. But the “Unequal Access” report shows the practice still continues in some schools.
In addition to the survey, the report provides recommendations to charter schools, charter-authorizing bodies and the California Department of Education to address the violations.
Molly A. Hunter
Education Justice, Director
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications