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ACLU, California Charter Schools Association Tangle Anew Over Report on Charter Admissions Policies

May 8, 2017

The American Civil Liberties Association of Southern California (together with the group Public Advocates, Inc.) and the Charter Schools Association of California traded strongly worded statements during the last week of April, following the ACLU’s release of a statement criticizing the admissions policies of some California charter schools.

On April 25, the ACLU released a statement that said:

In less than a year since the ACLU of Southern California and Public Advocates Inc. examined most of California’s 1,200 charter schools and found that at least 20% had enrollment policies that excluded or discouraged enrollment by certain students, many schools have adjusted their policies, but the majority of those with offending policies have yet to provide any indication that they have taken corrective measures.

The report, titled “Unequal Access: How Some California Charter Schools Illegally Restrict Enrollment,” documented charter schools that establish admission requirements in violation of the California Charter Schools Act, which requires charter schools to “admit all pupils who wish to attend,” regardless of academic performance, English proficiency, immigration status, or other factors.

“We urge the schools that continue to have exclusionary policies to review their materials and immediately remove exclusionary language,” said Sylvia Torres-GuillĂ©n, ACLU of California Director of Education Equity.  “These are public schools funded with public dollars that are supposed to be open to all students, not to just a select few.”

The authors of the report are also calling on charter authorizers, those who oversee the schools, to familiarize themselves with the law and closely monitor charter petitions, policies, and practices so that students are not discouraged from enrolling.

“The ACLU and Public Advocates are committed to working with the schools and authorizers to ensure that their policies are clear and inclusive,” said Angelica Jongco, Senior Staff Attorney with Public Advocates, Inc., “but we will explore all available means to bring them into compliance if they continue to ignore the law. One way is our co-sponsorship of AB 1360 (Bonta), which prohibits charter schools’ practices that discourage enrollment or push out already enrolled students without providing due process required by the U.S. and California Constitutions.”

Some striking improvements resulted from the 2016 report. It prompted dozens of charter schools to change their policies to be more inclusive and welcoming for students.  In fact, more than 100 charter schools reached out to the ACLU and Public Advocates after the publication of “Unequal Access” to fix or clarify their policies. Some charter schools stated they were simply unaware of their legal obligations and quickly made corrections. Other schools conceded that they had failed to consider how language on their websites could discourage enrollment but they were open to improving their policies. Still others claimed they had already amended their policies but inadvertently left outdated language on their websites and in handbooks.  Critically, many charter authorizers also reached out, asked for more information about the schools they oversaw, and subsequently worked with those schools to amend their policies and materials.

Since the report’s release, 119 out of 253 charter schools in violation have confirmed with the authors of the report that they have changed their admission policies and their public documents to remove exclusionary language and conform to the law.

  1. 8 out of 22 schools removed their academic requirements;
  2. 46 out of 92 schools eliminated their burdensome pre-enrollment essays and interviews;
  3. 30 out of 63 schools changed their parent volunteer requirements; and
  4. 63 out of 133 schools removed requirements that discriminate against or deter undocumented students.

The study and subsequent response is only a first step toward making California’s charter schools welcoming to all students. Going forward, the ACLU SoCal and Public Advocates will continue to work with students, parents, educators, advocates, and other stakeholders to expose exclusionary practices and to file complaints where schools violate the law, so that California’s charter schools provide all students with an equal and fair opportunity to attend.

To read the complete ACLU/Public Advocates report, click on the link below:

Making Progress Towards an Even Playing Field: A follow-up to the ACLU of Southern California and Public Advocates’ report on charter school admissions policies.

The California Charter Schools Association promptly replied on April 27 with the following statement asserting that the ACLU is spreading “misinformation about charter school admissions policies and practices”:

Instead of working with charter public schools to improve policies and to ensure student access at all public schools (traditional and charter), these two organizations have continued to mislead the public and state officials on the issue of charter school admissions policies for political purposes.

Last August, when the ACLU and Public Advocates released their initial report, CCSA advised them that they had included more than 30% non-autonomous schools (70 of the 252 schools). Those schools are governed by their school district and county board authorizers, and therefore implement the policies established by the district or county authorizers. Yet, they have been lumped in and identified generally as charter schools to inflate these numbers to make the report and headline more salacious. We recommended at the time that the groups revise their report to be more accurate but they refused to do so.

We find it discouraging that the ACLU refuses to conduct a similar review of admissions practices in traditional public schools. Many district schools, such as magnet schools and other special programs, are exclusionary in ways that charter schools are not because magnet programs often use grades, test scores, teacher evaluations, discipline records and IQ as a screen for admission.

The response we released last August indicated that we agreed with the ACLU and Public Advocates that charter schools must be open to any student interested in attending, and no student or group of students should be excluded or discriminated against as a result of enrollment and admissions policies at any public school, including charter public schools. We still agree.

However, since the release of that initial report, CCSA and autonomous charter schools across the state have taken the issues identified in the report seriously, working with legal counsel, their board of directors, and staff to review existing policies and clarify or modify them where necessary to ensure that the policies not only reflect the law but also best practices.

CCSA has been working alongside autonomous, independent charter schools, including both members and non-members, in an effort to assist them in addressing these issue and ultimately to be removed from the list of schools by hosting webinars to help them understand the law and why their schools may have been identified; tracking the schools to our best ability and reaching out periodically to monitor the status of their efforts; and intervening when the schools asked for assistance in following-up with the ACLU.

What has Public Advocates and ACLU been doing? Leveraging the report in as many ways as possible to spread misinformation about the charter movement and using this report as a basis to recycle anti-charter legislation, which was defeated last year in the legislature, in conjunction with CTA.

Schools faced a number of barriers in securing removal from the list including:

  1. The listing of schools was removed from the ACLU website in late 2016. As a result, many schools could not determine if they were indeed on the list or if they had been crossed off. CCSA resorted to using its own spreadsheet to keep track of schools that remained on the list.
  2. Schools reported that it could take months and often multiple emails to get the ACLU to respond and remove them from the list. Even once they were confirmed to be "removed" from the list, the school names were simply struck through on the website listing (which meant their school name was still visible).
  3. Schools were not provided with specific and actual information as to why they were in the report. They were simply lumped in categories of broad policy violations. Schools had to try to determine which policies were the issues and sought guidance from CCSA to make changes in an effort to be removed. The vast majority of the issues involved old policies and information on websites that were no longer current or accurate. Simple changes were made and the schools were then compliant. The schools indicated no children were negatively affected by the language of the websites.
  4. In several instances when the ACLU notified schools that they would be removed from the list, those same schools mistakenly remained on the map of schools "deemed to have illegal policies." Therefore, CCSA calls for a formal apology to or a public announcement of the schools that the ACLU and Public Advocates have irreparably damaged by mistakenly identifying them in their release.

Our response to the report when it was first released remains:

  1. CCSA believes the types of policies identified in the report have different levels of urgency in terms of their impact on students. The report initially found only 22 schools (approximately 2% of California's total 1,228 charter schools) have academic policies that exclude low academic performers. We believe that academic performance policies are the most urgent to address.
  2. We do not agree that all policies (e.g., essays, interviews, or requests for student documentations) are per se discriminatory or exclusionary – there may be a perception of bias or discrimination, they may have been poorly drafted, but there is not necessarily evidence that they are intentional in their exclusion. For example, we disagree that auditions for performing arts schools are not permissible but we do advise that charter schools not implement them in a way that discriminates against groups of students unfairly. It is important to keep in mind that many charters are started by teachers and parents who often write their petitions and policies, many times without aid of legal counsel.
  3. Nearly 30% of the schools (70 out of 252 schools) identified in this report are non-autonomous charter schools.
  4. Limiting the report to charter schools was a missed opportunity to provide the bigger context that all public schools, including district/traditional public schools, should be held to the standards that this report has applied to charter schools. Policy makers and the public should be provided with the information about how well all public schools are meeting these standards.

The report was flawed in the first place. It remains flawed. CCSA and charter schools are absolutely willing to work with the two organizations on an issue that is of paramount importance to parents, teachers, school leaders and the charter school movement as a whole. But let’s work on it together. Stop politicizing these issues for political gain. If the issue is really about access for students, then work with CCSA and charter schools on solutions.

Public Advocates and ACLU must do better.

Sources:  ACLU, California Charter Schools Association.

A Total School Solutions publication.