Parents who believe their child is being "counseled out" of a charter school in California could soon have the right to request a hearing to challenge the student's removal.
This provision is part of a broader deal State Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) brokered between charter school lobbyists and teachers union leaders in Sacramento, potentially paving the way for state lawmakers to change state laws governing charter schools' enrollment or discipline policies this session.
The deal would amend Assembly Bill 1360, which members of the Assembly's Appropriations Committee could take up and send to the House floor at their meeting on Friday. Bonta said the legislature's lawyers are still working out the exact wording for the changes.
But if the new language meets with all sides' approval, Bonta will have sewn up a rare agreement between two rival Sacramento heavyweights: the state's largest teachers union, the California Teachers Association; and the California Charter Schools Association.
The deal is also a response to an Aug. 2016 report from the ACLU and the non-profit law firm Public Advocates which questioned whether the admissions policies at nearly one-fifth of the state's 1,200 charter schools were discriminatory.
In an interview, Bonta said the deal results in "milestone legislation protecting all students from discrimination in any publicly-funded school."
Under terms of the deal, the amended AB 1360 would strengthen or clarify several state charter school laws:
- Discipline policies. The bill would require charter schools to publish a specific list of acts for which a student could be suspended or expelled. The bill also spells out the "due process" rights of a charter school student facing discipline. Depending on the length of the student's suspension, she could be entitled to oral or written notice of the charges, the right to present alternative evidence or even a hearing overseen by a neutral arbitrator.
- 'Non-disciplinary' dismissals. Critics often allege charter schools attempt to push out students who are costly or difficult to educate, such as special education students. (Charter school advocates say the charges are often overblown.) The amended AB 1360 would outline a similar "due process" procedure for charter school students who are transferred or dis-enrolled for "non-disciplinary" reasons, giving parents up to five school days to request a hearing challenging the students' dismissal.
- Enrollment preferences. Charter schools are supposed to admit any student who applies so long as there's space. When applicants outnumber available seats, charter schools must hold random drawings to fill those seats. State law allows charter schools to set limited admissions preferences, such as for pupils who reside in the district — but current law also leaves a big grey area, saying charter schools can enact "other preferences" so long as they're not discriminatory. Under the deal, AB 1360 would officially allow two "other preferences" that have become common practice among charter schools — preferences for children of charter staff members and for siblings of current charter school students.
- Mandatory parent volunteer hours. California Department of Education officials have said parents cannot be compelled to volunteer their time or donate money to any public schools. Still, last year, the report from the ACLU and Public Advocates found more than 60 California charter schools which required parents to commit to a set number of volunteer hours as a condition for enrollment. The amended AB 1360's language would explicitly prohibit these volunteerism requirements. (By the way, half of those 60 schools have since changed their policies.)
In a joint statement with Bonta, California Teachers Association president Eric Heins wrote the union "supports amendments to AB 1360 that will stop charter schools from engaging in discriminatory admissions practices and exploitive suspension and expulsion policies."
California Charter Schools Association officials have argued allegations of discrimination are vastly overblown.
For instance, take the 2016 report on charter school admissions policies: many of the 253 charter schools the report initially flagged have since worked with the ACLU to change their policies, said Carlos Marquez, the charter association's senior vice president of government affairs.
In some cases, removing an outdated document from a charter's website was all it took to get the school removed from the list of offending schools. As of April, 119 schools have changed their policies.
"There have been isolated incidents in the past," Marquez said, "of bad actors who have used perhaps gray areas in the law to be creative. But we do not believe there is an endemic cultural issue within the charter school movement to pretty much stave off our responsibility to serve the most vulnerable.
"Now," Marquez added, "we can point for our operators and our detractors to something that’s very clear in statute that says it’s not allowed for charter schools to discriminate in their admissions or discipline practices. That is really important for us."
A bill nearly identical to AB 1360's original form failed on the Assembly floor last session. Bonta's hopeful the amendment — and the endorsement of both the charter association and the teachers union that's come with it — will be the difference-maker this year.
"I don’t think you’ll see a lot of bills where the California Teachers Association and the California Charter Schools Association are both in support," Bonta said. "Often, they’re in opposite positions."
It's also not clear AB 1360 presages a new era of cooperation between the charter association and teachers union.
Marquez pointed to another union-backed charter school oversight bill, AB 1478, which would apply several open records and open government laws to the few charter schools not already following them. While the charter association doesn't oppose the idea in general, Marquez said the association can't support the bill in its present form — and right now, the two organizations or the bill's author aren't talking.
Marquez gave credit to Bonta for putting together a deal on AB 1360.
"The author has come to the table," Marquez said, "in part because there’s a recognition in the legislature that the charter association is a meaningful player, and if you want to do something meaningful on charter schools in California, you should probably reach out to the charter schools association to get a sense of what they think."