The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter of guidance last week to charter schools (see link below). While supportive in tone, it laid out clear expectations regarding the application of civil rights laws in charter schools. This is good news for all schools. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon’s letter suggests that a new level of transparency needs to be practiced by charter schools.
Charter schools have been criticized for many of their dubious practices. The OCR letter, thankfully, addresses these concerns. The letter included guidance in the following areas:
- charter schools are expected to know and understand Federal civil rights laws
- admissions procedures may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability
- special education students cannot be excluded
- once admitted, students with disabilities must be provided FAPE (free appropriate public education)
- charter schools cannot ask students to waive their rights to FAPE
- English learners must be provided the same meaningful access to admissions information
- English learners must be provided with effective language instruction
- charter schools must operate under local desegregation plans
- discipline policies and enforcement must be free of discriminatory practices
It is reasonable to expect that charter schools operate under the same rules as public schools as they are funded by the public using a per-pupil expenditure formula. The rush into the public charter business led to violations by many of these eager start-ups. While some charter schools have been touted for their innovative practices, many of them have been operating outside the guidelines addressed in the OCR letter.
Why should anyone care about how public charter schools operate? They should care because charter schools have been siphoning away students from their home schools and eroding communities across the country. They have become quasi private schools by selectively choosing who gets in and who doesn’t.
The OCR’s letter is a starting point for holding public charter schools to the same expectations as all other public schools. Enforcing civil rights laws will be another question. Let’s hope the OCR monitors the performance of public charter schools and takes action when necessary.