Read my Lips: Charter Schools are Public Schools & Must Comply with Civil Rights Laws

The battle lines have been drawn in the education reform movement.  There are those who would privatize as much of our public education through vouchers as possible, and they are strongly opposed by those who defend public education at all costs.  As is often the case, when the vitriol gets louder, confusion reigns, and in education reform, confusion has reigned supreme in the charter school arena.

Many who oppose school privatization oppose charter schools, despite their potential for innovation,  because they believe that charter schools are just another vehicle for privatizing and therefore destroying public schools.  Fortunately, the US Department of Education (USDOE), has made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.  In a guidance letter issued by the USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on May 14, 2014, it was made abundantly clear that,

These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

The guidance letter specifies 4 key federal laws that apply to charter schools:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability).

The OCR letter states that a separate guidance letter will be issued in collaboration with the USDOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) to address charter schools’ obligations to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Eduction Act (IDEA).

Some key provisions of the new guidance letter are:

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions.  This includes:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services.Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face.  But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. (emphasis supplied) A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content. Federal civil rights laws do not, however, require any school, including a charter school, to adopt or implement any particular educational model or program of instruction for English-language learners; schools have substantial flexibility to determine how they will satisfy their legal obligations to meet these students’ needs.

The latest guidance on charter schools also affirms that the prior guidance issued by the USDOE jointly with the US Dept. of Justice on discriminatory school discipline also applies to charter schools.  As I wrote about previously, this guidance is an important step in stopping the schools to prison pipeline.

Of course, laws are only as good as their enforcement, so it is good that OCR ends its guidance by providing a link to its contact information and complaint form.  It also provides its toll free number and e-mail address: (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov.  OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate the law.  It will be up to advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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