A new report released today by the ACLU and Public Advocates (a California civil rights organization) entitled Unequal Access: How Some California Charter Schools Illegally Restrict Enrollment has found a variety of illegal policies in charters schools. The ACLU and Public Advocates report examines charters schools policies across the state of California and details how they are failing students. In this report, they provide (1) an analysis of illegal charter school policies; (2) a description of the framework of laws that prohibit exclusionary policies; and (3) recommendations to ensure equal admission. This report can be a guide for ACLU chapters and civil rights organizations across the nation to hold charters accountable for following federal and state law.
The ACLU and Public Advocates write:
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. However, charter schools can also heighten existing inequities. Through admissions policies that exclude vulnerable students by erecting various barriers to entry, charter schools have the potential to create a two-tiered system of public education. We believe charter schools are viable only if they are open to all students.
Although charter schools may be privately controlled and receive non-government funding, they are part of California’s public education system. The California Constitution requires that all students, whether they choose to attend traditional public schools or charter schools, have equal access to educational opportunity. Like other public schools, it is illegal for charter schools to select which students to enroll. The state legislature made this principle clear in the California Charter Schools Act, which plainly requires charter schools to “admit all pupils who wish to attend.” In other words, except for limitations due to space, charter schools may not enact admissions requirements or other barriers to enrollment and must admit all students who apply, just as traditional public schools cannot turn away students.
Although the law is clear, our review of California charter schools’ public, written policies reveals that many charters illegally prevent students from enrolling or remaining at their schools. Specifically, out of the roughly 1,200 charter schools in California, at least 253, representing roughly 25% of all of California’s charter schools, have policies that are plainly exclusionary because they:
- Deny enrollment to students who do not have strong grades or test scores.
- Expel students who do not maintain strong grades or test scores.
- Deny enrollment to students who do not meet a minimum level of English proficiency.
- Select students based on onerous pre-enrollment requirements such as student or parent/guardian essays or interviews.
- Discourage or preclude immigrant students from attending by requiring parents/guardians or students to provide Social Security numbers or other citizenship information before enrollment.
- Refuse to enroll students unless their parents/guardians volunteer or donate money to the school.
These practices disadvantage certain groups of students, including legally protected classes such as English-language learners, students with disabilities, and immigrants, among others, by deterring or outright precluding enrollment. These exclusionary policies violate the California Education Code, the California and U.S. Constitutions, and state and federal civil rights laws.
The fact that the websites, handbooks, and other public materials of so many schools contain plain violations demonstrates a clear failure of accountability. The entities that authorize charter schools, which include the California State Board of Education, county offices of education, and local public school districts, are responsible for ensuring that charter schools follow all laws and abide by the terms of their charters. Regardless of whether this failure is caused by a lack of resources, a misunderstanding of the law, or inadequate procedures for reviewing charter policies, it is troubling that so many authorizing entities have missed these clear violations of the law, all of which are publicly posted on the schools’ websites.
What is the ACLU and Public Advocates asking for?
We are calling on the California Department of Education to issue guidance making clear that the practices highlighted in this report are illegal and ordering any offending charter schools to change their policies and immediately and publicly notify parents/guardians and students.
We ask charter school operators and charter-authorizing entities to check charter policies and public materials for legal compliance and to ensure that schools maintain simple and straightforward admissions procedures.
We urge students and their families to check their local charter schools’ policies and advocate for changes when these policies are confusing, discouraging, or illegal. If the school refuses to remedy the problems, families, students and others should file complaints with the schools’ authorizers or the county office of education where the school is located. Because charter schools lack a centralized authority, we must all be vigilant in ensuring that they meet their obligations.
It’s been a rough week for charter schools. For more on what’s going wrong with charters click here.
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 Cal. Educ. Code § 47605(d)(2)(A) (“A charter school shall admit all pupils who wish to attend the school.”).
 Cal. Educ. Code § 47605(d)(2)(A); 20 U.S.C. § 1703(f); Cal. Gov’t. Code §11135; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq.; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794; Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 229-30 (1982).
 Charter Schools FAQ Section 3, California Department of Education (last visited July 12, 2016), available at http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cs/re/qandasec3mar04.asp (“The charter authorizing entity is responsible for ensuring the charter school operates in compliance with all applicable laws and the terms of its charter.”).