Charter schools break law by making parents volunteer, report says

Group finds many charter schools force parents to volunteer in violation of California law

Scores of California charter schools require parents to volunteer as a condition for their child’s enrollment in violation of state law, according to a report by a civil rights organization.

Public Advocates, a California nonprofit law firm and advocacy group, surveyed about half of the state’s 1,100 charter schools, and found that about a third of those required parents to work at the school in return for their child's enrollment. Some forced parents to pay fees in lieu of working.

In Los Angeles, the group found that parents at Academia Moderna in Walnut Park, which is overseen by the Los Angeles Unified School District, must volunteer 20 hours per family, and that those who fail to fulfill that requirement could be at risk of losing their child’s spot the following year.

At the Academy of Science and Engineering charter school, also authorized by L.A. Unified, parents must volunteer to work at least 20 hours in a variety of jobs: document translation, school cleanup and facilities maintenance.

Hilary Hammell, the Public Advocates attorney who wrote the report, said the practice clearly defies state education law, violating California's guarantee of a free education. By compeling work hours, the schools are essentially requiring a fee, she said.

“When work is required, it’s not voluntary,” Hammell said. “It’s wrong and unlawful to punish a child for what his or her parents can’t or won’t do.”

In a statement, the California Charter Schools Assn. said it was not familiar with any situation in which a student was excluded from a school as the result of a parent’s failure to volunteer. The group said it would provide guidance to its members on the issue.

The charter group said it “does not believe that it is legal nor is it appropriate for a student to be excluded from a school or school activity because a parent failed to volunteer or to make a financial contribution to their school.”

The report calls on the state Department of Education to clarify and give guidance on the law and to move to end the practice. If it does not, the group will consider litigation.

The department declined to comment until officials have completed a review of the report. 

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