Education

1 in 5 charter schools 'illegally' screens applicants, report says

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California law lays out a straightforward admissions process for charter schools: charters, like all public schools, essentially must admit any student who wants to enroll so long as there’s space.

But "at least” 253 of the state’s 1,200 charter schools ask students and their families to jump through extra hoops before letting them in, according to a report the ACLU and Public Advocates released Monday.

For instance, 22 charter schools in California ask students to prove they have strong grades or test scores before letting them in. In other cases, students must prove they meet a minimum level of English proficiency or participate in entrance interviews or essays. Sometimes schools ask families to donate money or volunteer hours.

For vulnerable student populations — low-income kids, immigrants, English Learners and students with disabilities — such policies erect onerous barriers to admission in charter schools, the report's authors conclude. In some cases, they argue the policies may even be against the law.

It’s possible to quibble with the report’s count of schools with “plainly exclusionary” admissions policies. California Charter Schools Association leaders said they agreed with the report's authors that using grades or volunteer commitments as a condition for enrollment isn’t justifiable, but they disagree that entrance interviews or essays are necessarily discriminatory.

Nevertheless, the root of the problem, the report’s authors said, is lax oversight from the state agencies, county education offices and local school districts that grant and renew charters. The solution, the report argued, is clearer guidance from state officials that “the practices highlighted in this report are illegal."

“It is troubling that so many authorizing entities have missed these clear violations of the law, all of which are public posted on the schools’ websites,” the report said.

Staffers for the ACLU and Public Advocates, a non-profit social justice law firm, reviewed materials from the websites of “roughly 1,000” California charters. ACLU attorney Victor Leung said they were careful to only count schools whose policies required auditions, essays or interviews before the charter’s admissions lottery. The report lists 92 charter schools that did.

Even if schools don’t use these pre-enrollment essays, auditions or interviews as determining factors in the admissions process, the report’s authors said such requirements still “give the appearance of selectivity, which may discourage applications from students from less-privileged backgrounds or students who lack confidence in their abilities."

For instance, Leung said, “if there are 17 short-answer essay questions, it definitely might discourage English Learners from applying, particularly if those English Learners believe the school is going to use the performance on that essay to select students. They might just think think, ‘I’m not going to have a chance on this, I might as well just not apply.’"

Staff counted another 63 charter schools that ask parents to commit to volunteering for a certain number of hours at the school, a practice that state officials specifically told schools in 2014 was out-of-bounds. The report even highlights schools that ask families to make monetary donations for every hour they can’t volunteer.

Charter schools — public schools that are run by non-profit organizations, not school districts — must admit any student who applies. If the number of applications exceeds a school’s capacity, charters fill their available seats with a lottery. State law requires charters to extend admissions preference to students who already attend the school or who live in the area.

From there, charter schools have some leeway in determining admissions preferences, according to a brief from the state charter school association.

For instance, charters may extend preference to siblings of current students; children of school founders, staff or board members; or perhaps for vulnerable groups of students, such as those “whose parents did not attend or complete college.”

But some admissions practices fall into a grey area. The charter association's guidance says conditioning admission on grades or GPA likely isn’t justifiable. But asking students to turn in entrance essays or participate in an audition or interview “may or may not be acceptable … depending on how these requirements are implemented.”

“It’s important that those don’t become predominant factors in making a decision about admission,” said CCSA general counsel Ricardo Soto.

Sometimes, Soto said, “those interviews and essays are used for purposes of verifying that students are interested in attending the school and pursuing the academic programs that the school might have, and aren’t just being forced to do it — which is what we’ve heard, in some charter school situations, where it’s just the parents, and the kids aren’t as committed to the program. That invariably leads to a bad fit."

Los Angeles has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of charter schools. Yet the ACLU and Public Advocates only flagged 24 of the county’s 360 charter schools. They counted another 9 in Orange County.

Charter school advocates recently heralded a report from an independent monitor highlighting the inclusivity of charter schools in L.A., saying they enroll nearly as many students receiving special education services as do schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

CCSA leaders said they would begin encouraging schools that use grades or volunteer hours as conditions of enrollment to begin changing their policies.

But they also pointed out roughly 30 percent of the schools the ACLU and Public Advocates identified were “non-autonomous,” meaning they essentially operate as part of a school district.

“We hope that districts and counties that govern and operate [those schools] take this report equally seriously,” read a statement from CCSA president Jed Wallace, "to review their policies to ensure that their dependent (non-autonomous) charter schools are also complying with the law."