It’s long been common knowledge that children do better in school when their parents take an active role in their education, but some SLO County charter schools may be taking that concept too far.
An Aug. 4 report from the Southern California branch of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) alleges that some of California’s charter schools have illegal policies that force parents to volunteer their time, denying students whose parents can’t meet those requirements equal access to an education as guaranteed in the state’s constitution.
According to the report, titled “Un-Equal Access,” both the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School in San Luis Obispo and the Almond Acres Charter Academy in San Miguel currently have such policies on the books.
While charter schools can encourage parent volunteering, the report indicated that many have policies that either openly mandate or strongly infer that volunteering is required, and the policies neglect to specifically state that parent/guardian volunteering is not mandatory for a child to be enrolled in or attend the school.
“Familial support and engagement are important ingredients of student success. … However, charter schools that require parent/guardian involvement cross the line between encouraging healthy participation and excluding certain student groups,” the report stated.
- PHOTO BY CHRIS MCGUINNESS
- SCHOOL’S OUT : A report by the Southern California ACLU raised concerns over parent volunteer policies at some of the state’s charter schools, including two in SLO County.
Bellevue-Santa Fe’s written policy states that the school “encourages” parents to work a minimum of six hours a month at the school. While the number is just a suggestion, a section on “volunteer opportunities” noted, “Violations of this policy may result in intervention by an administrator.”
Bellevue-Santa Fe administration did not respond to a request for comment from New Times.
Almond Acres Charter Academy’s policy is more explicit and states that parents and guardians are “expected to participate in the operation of the school.” The policy also notes that its “family participation responsibilities” include a specific commitment of six hours per month for one enrolled child, and 10 hours per month for two or more enrolled children.
Almond Acres administration did not respond to requests for comment on its policy.
Under California law, charter schools are independent public schools that can be organized and founded by parents, teachers, or community organizations. While they are privately controlled and can get non-governmental funding, charter schools also receive tax dollars like any other public school, which means that they must abide by state law, admit all students who wish to attend, and are barred from enacting admission policies or requirements that restrict or create a barrier to a child’s right to enroll.
Rigel Spencer Massaro, an attorney with Public Advocates, a Sacramento-based nonprofit law firm that partnered with the ACLU to create the report, said parent volunteer policies like those at Almond Acres and Bellevue-Santa Fe restrict equal access because they could exclude or dissuade parents and guardians who couldn’t meet the required hours.
“We know that low-income parents are often working two or three jobs,” Massaro said. “The little spare time they have is used to directly care for their families. It could discourage a family from applying altogether.”
The report noted that such policies could also negatively impact students in foster care, group homes, students raised by elderly relatives, and students whose parents have intensive work and child-care obligations.
This isn’t the first time the two charter schools have been called out for their parent volunteer policies. In 2014, Public Advocates released a report on so-called “forced parent work” policies in the state’s charter schools. Both Bellevue-Santa Fe and Almond Acres were among 166 California charters schools with parent volunteer policies the organization believed were illegal. The report prompted the California Board of Education to issue a formal statewide advisory, clarifying that the state law prohibited schools from requiring volunteer hours or payment in lieu of those hours as a condition of admission, enrollment, or participation in a school.
Both reports called on charter schools to change those policies and encouraged parents to file complaints with the school’s “authorizers” if they did not. Authorizers for charter schools are usually the public school districts where a charter is located. Those districts are charged with providing oversight and accountability.
The San Luis Coastal Unified School District, the authorizer for the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School, did not respond to requests for comment from New Times. San Miguel Joint Union School District is the authorizer for Almond Acres Charter Academy. Superintendent Curt Dubost said that concerns about the charter’s parent volunteer policy were brought to the district’s attention in the past, and Almond Acres made “all the necessary changes” to its literature on the policy at the direction of the district.
“We were aware of the concern, and it’s my impression that it’s been addressed to make sure we are in full compliance with the law,” Dubost said. “And if that isn’t the case, we will address it to make the necessary changes.”
The two SLO County charter schools are part of 253 charter schools that the report cited for parent volunteer or other policies that the ACLU report claims are exclusionary and violate the law. That number accounts for roughly 20 percent of all charter schools in the state. Massaro said that how closely they are monitored depends mostly on the ability, resources, and motivation of authorizers like the San Luis Coastal and San Miguel school districts.
“Unfortunately it’s sort of the Wild West out there when it comes to accountability for charter schools,” she said.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.