Charter School Expansion: Whither Accountability?

Wisconsin’s powerful Joint Finance Committee recently approved a dramatic change to Wisconsin’s charter school authorization law. This change would expand so-called independent charter schools to over 140 new school districts. More troubling is that the new charter school authorizers would include the University of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee and Waukesha County Executives, tribal colleges and Gateway Technical Colleges, adding to the already confusing maze of Wisconsin school choices.

FallGuide09cartoon(cartoon by Eric Joselyn)

Sen. Alberta Darling acknowledged that this provision did not include any oversight for these new charter schools. Perhaps she and her colleagues who passed this provision failed to understand that they cannot change federal law which contains quite a few obligations for charter schools.

As I wrote about a year ago, charter schools are public schools and they must comply with federal civil rights laws. In fact, perhaps due to the confusion wrought by charter expansion, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter last year that made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.

In summary, that letter confirms that:

  • 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)

all apply to all operations of charter schools.

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.

Specifically,

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions, meaning:

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. 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.

Together with the U.S. Department of Justice, as I have written previously, the U.S. Department of Education has also clarified that, like all other public schools, charter schools must also administer discipline in a nondiscriminatory manner, which is an important component in stemming the tide of the schools to prison pipeline.

If this highly problematic provision passes the full Wisconsin legislature and is signed into law by Governor Walker, it will be interesting to see how all of these new charter entities will implement state and federal special education law, which requires them to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and includes many protections to prevent discriminatory disciplinary exclusion of children with disabilities. Each one of these new chartering entities will need to be sure that it assigns a local education agency representative to each Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting who has the knowledge of all the charter school’s resources and the authority to commit them to students with disabilities whose IEPs require such services.

Of course, in order to be effective, civil rights laws must be enforced. Concerned parents and advocates can contact OCR at (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov, since OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate any civil rights laws. Contact information and complaint forms can be found here. It will be up to parents and advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

Parents who believe charter schools have violated state or federal special education law may file complaints with the state education agency. In Wisconsin, you can find information about how to file a complaint and a sample form here.

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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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