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Some California charter schools discriminate in admissions, ACLU report says

Some California charter schools discriminate in admissions, ACLU report says
California law requires charter schools to take in all students, but the ACLU says some schools aren't following the rule. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images)

Tom Brown was scrolling through his news feed on Monday afternoon when he found the school he runs on a list that made him gasp.

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville, south of Santa Cruz, was one of 253 California charter schools flagged for discriminatory admissions practices in a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Public Advocates. The school was one of just 22 the report singled out for discriminating based on "academic performance."

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The report, released Monday, was the latest in the ongoing research back-and-forth over charter schools, which are publicly funded but can be privately run.

State law requires charter schools to take in all students. ACLU and Public Advocates started investigating the schools' admissions policies after hearing from parents that they might not be doing so.

Researchers used a rubric to grade the schools' policies, as expressed on their websites. They looked for different types of discrimination: bias against English language learners; requirements for essays, interviews, auditions or academic performance; mandates for parents; and practices that could drive away students who are in the U.S. illegally.

"We thought it was pretty concerning," said Victor Leung, an ACLU of Southern California attorney who worked on the project. "There's no central authority for charter schools so we wanted to shine a light on it."

Many of the schools on the report's list asked for essays or required parents to pitch in or used language that might discourage some immigrant students.

Coding the violations can be complex, Leung said, so researchers did not include schools they deemed close calls on the list.

When Brown saw his school was flagged, he immediately scanned Ceiba Prep's website to try to figure out what was wrong. He noticed a reference to "sibling preference for students in good academic standing," which he said didn't gel with his school's policy.

He removed the language, then wrote to the ACLU, asking if anything else was wrong.

Leung said he was encouraged to see a school changing its policy based on the report's findings.

In a written response to the report, the California Charter Schools Assn. urged its member schools to revise their policies, saying, "charter schools must be open to any student interested in attending."

"We've heard from members who are definitely interested in getting more information … about the specific language they found problematic," said Ricardo Soto, the charter group's attorney.

L.A. Unified has the largest number of charter schools in the country, but relatively few of them — four — were flagged, Leung said, because the school system "has a pretty good understanding of the law."

The nation's second-largest school system is in the middle of a battle over its future, with energy flowing into a campaign to create more charter schools.

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The district recently held a meeting aimed at making it easier for charter and district educators to coexist.

Though California has more than 1,200 charter schools, the study measured only 1,000 of them. Leung said researchers ran out of time but included schools in every district.

Jennifer Jennings, a New York University sociologist currently studying the ways in which admissions practices in New York City create unequal access to public schools, said she found the study sound, though "optimally, you want a more aggressive method. You could have people from different backgrounds approaching the schools and seeing how they respond."

Leung said his team relied on policies that were posted online because those are the same materials a parent would encounter when looking to enroll at a school.

Brown said he understood.

After he told the ACLU he had changed the language on Ceiba Prep's website, he was told the school would be taken off the list once the change was confirmed.

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