Report Alleges Charter Schools Illegally Require “Volunteer” Work

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A key selling point of charter schools is that they involve parents of students in the educational process in ways that regular public schools can’t or won’t.

Last week, a civil rights group alleged that scores of California charter schools are violating state laws by requiring parents to volunteer their time or alternatively provide financial compensation as a condition of enrollment for their child.

Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group, published a study (pdf) it did of 555 charter schools, nearly half of the 1,300 in the state, and found 168 of them had an explicit parent work quota. The group suspects that the actual number is higher, but information from many of the schools was incomplete.

“Requiring parents or family members of a student to work at a public school violates both the California Constitution and the California Education Code,” the 17-page report argues. Specifically, it violates the “free schools” clause of the Constitution and Education Code 49011(b)(4), which codifies the guarantee in direct language regarding fees.

The code says public schools “shall not offer course credit or privileges related to educational activities in exchange for money or donations of goods or services from a pupil or a pupil’s parents or guardians.”

Report author Hilary Hammell said they didn’t do that. “They call these policies ‘required volunteer hours’ or ‘mandatory service hours,’ but when work is required, it’s not voluntary,” she told reporters after the study’s release. The report cites numerous instances of school charters that specifically tie volunteer work, or its equivalent, to enrollment.

“Such policies discriminate against poor families, single-parent families, non-traditional households and working parents,” the report says.

Charter schools and their advocates say otherwise. Although there is anecdotal evidence of children being kicked out for lack of parental involvement, they maintain the practice merely encourages good behavior and rarely results in exclusion.

California Charter Schools Association President and CEO Jed Wallace told the Sacramento Bee kicking kids out would be wrong, but it doesn’t happen. He said the report is off-base because it uses material anyone could research. “It’s basically dependent on a cursory scan of documents available on the Web and we don’t think that’s a very deep look at what has happened.”

The report opens with the story of a Hispanic student who was denied enrollment in an Oakland charter school because his mother had not signed up for 30 hours a month of voluntary work. She found out on the first day of school and told them her factory job and limited English prevented her volunteering.

They responded that her son would be enrolled if she ponied up $300 on the spot (the value of the work) or ran down to Costco and picked up three $80-pound boxes of printer paper. Her English may not have been very good, but her math was fine. She bought the paper. 

–Ken Broder   


To Learn More:

Report: Charter Schools That Require Volunteering Are Breaking California Law (by Jason Green, Palo Alto Daily News)

Civil Rights Group Seeks Crackdown on Charter School Volunteer Requirements (by Loretta Kalb, Sacramento Bee)

Charter Schools Break Law by Making Parents Volunteer, Report Says (by Stephen Ceasar, Los Angeles Times)

Is the Charter School Movement Shutting Out the Poorest American Children? (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Charging for Access: How California Charter Schools Exclude Vulnerable Students by Imposing Illegal Family Work Quotas (by Hilary Hammell, Public Advocates Inc.) (pdf)

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