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Charter Schools Under Fire For Discriminatory Enrollment Practices

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Bay Area charter schools are among the 253 charter schools in California that have come under fire for exclusionary or discriminatory enrollment policies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the non-profit law firm Public Advocates released a report this week flagging 253 of California's 1,228 charter schools allegedly practicing illegal admission policies.

The report states that these 253 charter schools have openly posted enrollment policies or forms on the Internet that are illegal or exclusionary. It also states that other charter schools may be practicing these prohibited policies, but have kept them hidden from the public eye. The report looked at roughly 1,000 charter schools in all 58 California counties, but not all 1,228 charter schools.

Over 570,000 students in California attend charter schools and the admission process can arduous, but the report states that the enrollment process for some schools, include illegal elements.

The report divided the 253 flagged charter schools into five categories: academic performance exclusion, English language discrimination, essay/interview barriers, barriers to non-citizens and illegal parent involvement requirements. The report found some charter schools in violation of numerous laws.

The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), a charter school advocacy organization, didn't fight many of the report's findings.

CCSA president and chief executive officer Jed Wallace released a response to the report stating:

"We agree with the ACLU and Public Advocates that charter schools must be open to any student interested in attending, and no student or group of students should be excluded or discriminated against as a result of enrollment and admissions policies at any public school, including charter public schools. We are encouraged that the report identified a small number of charter schools which have the most clearly exclusionary practices based on academic performance. We believe there is an urgency to work with these schools to make changes immediately to these policies to ensure that students are not unlawfully excluded from applying or being admitted to the charter school program."

The report found 22 charter schools discriminating based on "academic performance."

The report also found that some charter schools were violating California law when they required mandatory volunteer hours or donations as a condition of enrollment. Wallace condemned such requirements and said more guidance must be given to member schools, districts and counties by CCSA and the California Department of Education to ensure that the schools comply with all state and federal laws.

Wallace said, however, that CCSA doesn't agree with all the findings in the report.

"We do not agree that all policies (e.g., essays, interviews or requests for student documentations) are per se discriminatory or exclusionary - there may be a perception of bias or discrimination, they may have been poorly drafted, but there is not necessarily evidence that they are intentional in their exclusion," Wallace states.

But the ACLU and Public Advocates disagree, saying that the California Charter Schools Act requires charter schools to admit any child who wishes to attend as long as there is space for them.

The ACLU/Public Advocates report found four San Francisco charter schools in violation: Thomas Edison Charter Academy, City Arts & Tech High School, Gateway Middle and Gateway Middle. The report identified dozens more around the Bay Area.

Read Also: Charter Schools Gain Unprecedented Popularity In California, Waiting Lists Nearly Double

Some of the unlawful policies highlighted in the report include one at Willow Creek Academy in Marin County, which states "Willow Creek Academy's program must be determined to be an appropriate setting in which to implement your child's current IEP [Individualized Education Program] before they can be enrolled." It's not clear what exactly that means, but it does appear to be a part of the school's enrollment practice.

Another policy, at SunRidge Charter in Sonoma County, apparently prohibits or limits processed foods, synthetic fibers and electronic devices at the child's home. The school policy states that parents must enter into a partnership with the school to ensure their children receive "minimally processed family meals" as well as "layers of natural fibers, including hats for warmth" and that they have a "media free experience . . . at home. Media refers to electronic and screen technology, including handheld devices."

Buckingham Charter Magnet High School in Solano County has policies which, according to the report, would expel students who struggle academically. The report found the school's policy states that students must "complete 100% of all assigned work" and get at least a C- in their classes, or face dismissal. Students at that school are also required to "maintain positive behavior."

At River School in Napa County, parents were required to volunteer 25 hours to the school community or it could result in the student's dismissal, according to the report.

A policy at Oasis Charter Public School in Monterey County states, "There is a school requirement that ALL families are obligated to contribute a minimum of 45 hours in volunteer time OR the equivalent of $10.00 per hour for any portion of the hours your family is unable to volunteer."

As of Thursday afternoon the school's website still states, "We need school supplies for our students. If you would like to donate supplies, they will count as $10 for one hour of volunteering."

California Department of Education's assistant communications director, Robert Oakes, told CBS San Francisco on Friday that the department is reviewing the ACLU/Public Advocates report.

Oakes said the department is pleased that the report reiterated an advisory they sent out in 2015, which reminds schools "that the Education Code bars a school district or school from requiring 'volunteer hours' or payment of a fee in lieu of performing volunteer hours as a condition of admission, enrollment, continued enrollment, sibling preference, attendance, participation in educational activities or receipt of credit or privileges related to educational activities."

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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