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Why was it the ACLU, not charter school overseers, who called out 'illegal' behaviors?

FILE - Parents watch as a charter school principal conducts a lottery to determine which of the 257 applications will receive one of the 28 open slots in the school's kindergarten class. Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Dozens of charter schools have made changes to their websites, enrollment forms or recruiting materials in the month since the ACLU of Southern California alleged that one out of every five charters in California had a discriminatory admissions policy.

The report initially identified 253 charter schools that had posted "illegal" admissions guidelines on their websites. But since then, ACLU attorney Victor Leung says his organization has removed more than 50 charters from its list after school staff changed or clarified policies the ACLU termed "plainly exclusionary."

While even the California Charter Schools Association agreed most of the practices the ACLU flagged were inappropriate, some schools have quibbled with the ACLU's count. In two cases, charter staff simply had to scrub their websites of outdated links or documents that didn't reflect their current admissions practices.

But even some charter advocates say the report raises a larger question: why was it the ACLU — and not the state and local government entities that oversee and "authorize" these charters — that caught these problems?

Maybe all 253 schools weren't actually doing something wrong, said Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, but "when 20 percent of the schools in the state may be doing something wrong, that’s a clear signal that oversight is not happening."

With few exceptions, charter schools are supposed to admit any student who applies so long as there's available space. When space is limited, state law requires schools to hold random drawings to fill open seats.

But the ACLU, working with non-profit law firm Public Advocates, scoured the websites of more than 1,000 of the state's 1,200 charter schools. The researchers found enrollment documents on schools' websites that described extra hoops applicants would have to jump through before gaining admission: requirements that students have strong grades, that parents donate volunteer hours or money to the school, or that families provide papers that undocumented students aren't required to show (like birth certificates) before granting admission.

"These practices disadvantage certain groups of students," the report said, "including legally protected classes such as English-language learners, students with disabilities and immigrants, among others, by deterring or outright precluding enrollment."

The formal task of ensuring California's charter schools avoid adopting such policies is divided among 324 different "authorizers:" the State Board of Education, local school districts and county offices of education. When groups form to propose a charter school, state law requires these entities to review applications and renew existing schools' bids to remain in operation every few years.

"It’s not something they want to do," Richmond said. "It’s not something they were designed to do. You see hundreds of districts in the state that don’t do it well."

The practical effect of that lack of expertise is that — rather than authorizers catching these potential violations of state law — researchers found them.

Leung said the ACLU and Public Advocates launched their review after receiving complaints from parents about different schools' admissions policies and had even threatened some charters with litigation.

After finding so many problematic policies, Leung said it would've been difficult to follow up with charters about each one. They used what they found on the schools' websites because that's the information parents or students who are shopping for schools are most likely to find.

"Because charter schools are so decentralized and there are so many across the state," the ACLU's Victor Leung explained, "it’s almost impossible for us as an organization to reach out to these schools individually to police them and make sure the policies are correct."

Leung said the ACLU has heard directly from more than 80 of the schools on their list. Some called to dispute their placement on the list.

But "the vast majority of schools contacting us have been in a really constructive way," he said. "Most of these schools were quite concerned they had bad policies posted on their websites and they all wanted to change them pretty quickly."

Among the schools the ACLU identified initially was CHAMPS, a performing arts charter school in Van Nuys. The school's executive director, Chris Bright, explained that ACLU researchers thought language in one of the enrollment documents on its website might discourage undocumented students from enrolling.

"There was a line in there that said you could provide a birth certificate," Bright said. "But it wasn’t a barrier to admission to the school — it was one of the documents we might’ve looked at at the time." (Schools need some way to verify a student's age, but an affidavit from a parent often suffices.)

But Bright said the document the ACLU had flagged was outdated — the school hadn't used it document for more than a year. He removed the document from the school's website, contacted the report's authors and the ACLU crossed out CHAMPS' name on the list of "charters in violation."

"Yes, some of the things that were surfaced in this report probably could’ve been cleared up with a telephone call," said California Charter Schools Association CEO Jed Wallace. "On the other hand, charter schools should not have on their website this kind of language, and it’s perfectly appropriate for someone like the ACLU to call us on it."

CHAMPS was one of the relative handful of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District to make the ACLU's list. L.A. Unified, home to one of the largest concentrations of charter schools in the nation, also has a high rating from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

"LAUSD provides great oversight," Bright said. "However, they often are overtaxed and overstretched in their own ways."

The Journey School in Aliso Viejo was one of nine schools in Orange County that ACLU researchers identified for a similar reason: an outdated form on their website that, the school's executive director Gavin Keller said, didn't reflect the school's current practices.

In fact, in 2014, Keller said Journey School staff worked with the Capistrano Unified School District — their authorizer — to soften language on its enrollment forms that encouraged parents to volunteer at the school. Keller said the school never conditioned enrollment on parents' commitment to volunteer, but revised its materials to make that more explicit.

"Adding a few sentences here or there is no skin off our back," Keller said, "but at the same time, being accused is disappointing. I came into this job to serve all students. I’m not here to be discriminatory."

Richmond said he sympathizes with some of the schools the ACLU flagged for using inexact language that could be easily fixed.

"Some of the schools say, ‘Well, that’s just a written statement on a website — that’s not what we do.’ That might be the case," he said.

"But in other cases," Richmond said, "I think it’s clearly beyond that."

If the solution, as Richmond suggested, is more oversight, CHAMPS executive director Chris Bright wonders what that would look like.

"Charter schools get a bad rap," Bright said, "because there are bad actors out there, doing things the wrong way. We are not one of those [charters]. And it’s harder for the ones who are playing by the rules to get the traction we believe is necessary."

On the other hand, "too much oversight can snuff the life out of a school that’s really trying to do some interesting and creative things," Bright said.

"At the same time," he added, "a lot of people are just out there trying to do interesting and creative things that just aren’t playing by the rules."