Charter schools' volunteer demands may discourage needy students

California should impose firm rules to stop charter schools from requiring unpaid parental labor

Charter schools in the Los Angeles area have enrolled their share of disadvantaged students, and for the most part those students have done well, graduating at a higher rate and with higher standardized test scores than children in traditional public schools. But not all the credit goes to the charter schools: Their students tend to have more involved parents. In many cases, the very act of enrolling in a charter school means that parents must be engaged enough to locate and compare charter campuses and sign up their children for the attendance lottery. Parent involvement is an important factor in how well students fare in school.

But many charter schools demand more than that, requiring parents to volunteer a certain number of hours each year, often working in classrooms or school offices or helping at campus events. The practice has been around for years, but only now is it being challenged. Public Advocates, a nonprofit organization that has promoted equal education for disadvantaged students, recently released a report showing that the practice is widespread.

The group found that about a third of the charter schools it surveyed in California required parents to commit to a set number of volunteer hours before admitting a child. Seventy-three of the schools are in Los Angeles County, including many of the well-known Green Dot, Alliance and KIPP schools. There were many more schools that firmly suggested volunteer time or called for keeping work logs and minimum hours, without stipulating that the work was mandated.

In many cases, charter schools may have only the best intentions in encouraging parents to be engaged. And the California Charter Schools Assn. says it doesn't know of any schools that excluded or expelled a student because of a parent's failure to work as a volunteer.

But that's not enough. The requirement itself, even if it isn't enforced, might discourage families from applying and should not be allowed. As charter schools frequently point out, they are public schools, funded with public dollars. That means they should be welcoming to all children. But not all children have parents who are able or willing to volunteer. Some have multiple jobs, child-care responsibilities and so forth. Others simply might not be interested in volunteering. Children in group foster homes have no one to volunteer on their behalf. Rules about volunteer work might leave out the children most in need, intentionally or not.

Once children are enrolled, it's fine for schools to encourage voluntarism as a way of engaging parents in their children's education. But setting discouraging rules should be prohibited. The state Board of Education should impose firm rules to stop schools from requiring unpaid parental labor; California students are guaranteed the right to a free and public education.

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