Report alleges charter parents forced to volunteer

Credit: Henry de Saussure Copeland / flickrDozens and possibly hundreds of the state’s charter schools have adopted policies that illegally require parents to volunteer, the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates charged in a report issued on Thursday.
Some schools give parents the alternative of paying hundreds of dollars in lieu of volunteering and some charters policies threaten to dis-enroll children whose parents don’t comply, the Public Advocates report states (see school by school policies).
Public Advocates examined online documents of 555 of the state’s 1,184 charter schools, including charter petitions, handbooks and letters to parents. It found that 30 percent – 168 schools – imposed volunteer quotas. The report did not say how many of the charters had policies stating students would not be allowed to re-enroll if parents did not volunteer. An appendix summarizes all of the schools’ requirements and conditions.
John Affeldt, Public Advocates’ managing partner, said his firm did not contact any of the schools whose policies were cited to see how the schools enforced the policies and if they followed through with threats to prevent re-enrollment, he said. But, he said, the fact that a school has a policy requiring parents to volunteer is illegal and “discourages people from enrolling in a school who have a right to go there.”
Jed Wallace, the CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said that Public Advocates’ findings may be a case where charters’ “paperwork has not caught up with their actual practice.” The association has not heard of instances where charters have sanctioned students for their parents’ failure to volunteer. If it had, the association would have spoken out about this, he said.
Public Advocates said that the practice of requiring volunteer quotas violates children’s right under the State Constitution to a “free public school.” The firm also said it violates a 2012 state law banning public schools from demanding parents to provide “money or donations or goods or services.” Such policies discriminate against poor and working families, the report said, noting, “No public school should ever penalize or exclude a student because his or her parent or guardian cannot or chooses not to donate time or labor to the school.”
Wallace agrees. He said Thursday that the association has posted legal advice on the members’ portion of its website stating that “it is not legal or appropriate to take actions against students because of the actions of a parent.” He said that charters should actively encourage parents to volunteer and be flexible in seeking ways to involve families but they must not require it.
“No public school should ever penalize or exclude a student because his or her parent or guardian cannot or chooses not to donate time or labor to the school,” the report said.
Some of the schools Public Advocates reviewed had ambiguous policies or did not post policies online, the report stated. Volunteering requirements ranged from one event per year to one day per week, with 30 hours per year a common amount. Some charters permitted parents to buy back the hours at $5 to $25 per hour.
Public Advocates’ report calls on charter schools to halt the practice immediately and for districts to revoke charters of schools that continue it. Public Advocates also wants the State Board of Education to adopt regulations and the Legislature to amend charter laws to state that a forced donation of services constitutes an illegal fee and to demand that districts and county offices of education monitor for compliance.
Charters are public schools of choice, open to those who apply, that are independently managed – most often by nonprofit boards consisting of educators, parents and community leaders. They are overseen by school districts but are free from many of the regulations that the state Education Code imposes on districts. However, they are not exempt from the prohibition on charging fees and parental volunteer quotas, Public Advocates said.
The report cited the policies of a dozen schools, including Manzanita Charter Middle School, chartered by the West Contra Costa Unified School District. It requires at least 96 hours of parental volunteering per school year and participation in two “mandatory school cleanings” to remain “in good standing.” A family “not in good standing … will not receive priority admission for a sibling the following school year,” the school handbook says.
James Trombley, Manzanita’s executive director, said the 150-student middle school relies on parents to be involved in the classroom and to help with custodial work. The school tries to accommodate scheduling conflicts and medical needs of its mostly low-income families. Those families that do not receive a waiver from the volunteer requirement lose their priority enrollment status but can enter the lottery the next year for admission, he said.
“We’re a distinguished school recognized for our parent partnerships,” he said.
Some confusion may come from a 2006 memo by Michael Hersher, deputy general counsel of the state Department of Education. Hersher wrote that it was his opinion that a charter school proposal “may lawfully include reasonable admission criteria, including a requirement that parents agree to do work for the charter school.” Affeldt said the memo is no longer on the Department of Education website, but at least one law firm serving charter school clients has posted it on its website. He wants the Department of Education to disavow it.
In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union in California sued the state for permitting dozens of school districts to routinely charge fees, including charges for textbooks, AP exams, lab materials and gym uniforms. That led to the passage of AB 1575, which explicitly prohibits all public schools from charging fees for participating in an educational activity at the school. Public Advocates argues that forced volunteering constitutes a fee.
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