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Parent Volunteering Requirements at Calif. Charter Schools Illegal, Report Says

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Several California charter schools make parent volunteering a requisite for student enrollment—a practice that is against state law, according to a new report from Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization.

The group investigated the policies at 500 schools, about half of California's charters, and found roughly 30 percent of them have a work quota for parents. Failure to fulfill the required number of unpaid service hours at those schools could mean a student won't be allowed to enroll at the school the following year or, in some cases, graduate. Examples of  parent-service work ranged from chaperoning fieldtrips to cleaning school buildings.  

Those conditions discriminate against single-parent and low-income households, among other types of families, and it's also illegal, the Public Advocates' report argues. Specifically, such mandatory volunteering policies violate the California Constitution's "free schools" clause. Public schools are supposed to be free, and requiring parents to work is essentially a non-monetary fee, the report says. From the report:

"Courts in California have interpreted the word 'free' strictly to mean that public schools cannot impose any financial burden on any activity that is an 'integral component of public education.' According to the California Supreme Court, the free schools clause 'reflects the people's judgment that a child's public education is too important to be left to the budgetary circumstances and decisions of individual families.' "

The report goes on to argue that such parent-volunteering policies are also in violation of part of the California Education Code that was added in 2011.

However, the report points out that in a February 2006 memorandum from the California Department of Education's general deputy counsel to its charter school division said that a charter petition could legally include a work requirement for parents. The report says charter schools may still be relying on that memorandum for guidance. 

"We think the state does need to clarify what the law says," said the report's lead author, Hilary Hammell, in a conference call. "We don't necessary think that all charter schools are bad actors."

Public Advocates has asked the state's department of education to clarify the rules and take steps to end the practice. If it doesn't, the organization may pursue litigation. 

Meanwhile the California Charter Schools Association says the report is not capturing an accurate picture of the state's charter sector. 

"This is based on scanning the web and reviewing documents instead of getting on the ground and seeing what's happening in schools," says Jed Wallace, the association's CEO. "We will continue to advise schools to revise their documents to make sure they conform with the practices that are almost universally followed by California's charter schools."

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