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Report: Charter schools' requirements for parent volunteers preventing enrollments



File: A student graduating from a Green Dot charter high school. Public Advocates, a civil rights group, said it found charter schools violate the state's guarantee of a free public education when they require parents to volunteer.
File: A student graduating from a Green Dot charter high school. Public Advocates, a civil rights group, said it found charter schools violate the state's guarantee of a free public education when they require parents to volunteer.
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Policies of nearly a third of California charter schools reviewed by a civil rights group violate the state’s free public education guarantee by requiring parents to volunteer up to 40 hours each school year, according to a report released Thursday.

If parents can’t volunteer the hours, Public Advocates lawyer Hilary Hammell said, some charter schools demand parents either pay about $25 for each hour they can’t volunteer or donate learning supplies to the school.

“It’s a nice idea that parents should volunteer and we certainly support that, but it crosses the line when it becomes, basically, a form of tuition,” Hammell said.

The volunteer requirement, she said, discourages many parents from enrolling their children in the publicly funded charter schools.

Hammell said there are many kinds of barriers to volunteering: parents may work several jobs, are undocumented but need to pass a background check to volunteer in the schools, or care for young children or elderly relatives.

There are 1,100 charter schools in California. Public Advocates investigated 555 of them and found 168 required parents to volunteer.

Public Advocates looked at publicly available documents online and talked to parents in conducting its review.

But according to the head of the California Charter Schools Association, Public Advocates did not visit the charter campuses and did not make an effort to work with the association.

“Apparently it was a year-long investigation and there are virtually no studies or investigations of California’s charter schools that go on for a year where there’s no contact between the researchers and the California Charter Schools Association,” said Jed Wallace, the association's CEO.

Wallace said the practices cited by Public Advocates could be happening, but he said: "We are saying that we have virtually no evidence, or almost absolutely no evidence that problems of these kinds are occurring at California’s charter schools.”

The report found requirements for volunteer hours are most prevalent in the Los Angeles County, where California’s charter schools are concentrated. The report found 70 schools — including schools run by the Green Dot, KIPP, and Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools organizations — have language in their policies requiring parent volunteering.

Green Dot's policy states: "Parents of Ánimo students are responsible to contribute 35 hours of service to the school each year." However, a Green Dot spokesman said his schools encourage — but don’t require — parent volunteering.

KIPP's LA Prep requires a parent pledge that states: "We will commit to volunteering for 20 or more hours at KIPP LA Prep." Angella Martinez, KIPP LA chief academic officer, said in a statement that while the schools encourage volunteering, there are "no consequences of any kind for children or parents if parents cannot volunteer."

"Going forward, we will update our written materials to reemphasize that parent volunteerism is encouraged but not required," said Martinez. 

Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools CEO Judy Burton said in an email that volunteering is not a condition of enrollment. "We do encourage parental and guardian involvement in their students education and also encourage volunteering in schools as part of that."

Wallace of the charter schools association said he’d support the report’s recommendation that the California Department of Education issue a directive to charter schools reminding them that they may not require parents to volunteer as a condition of enrolling their children.