Feds remind charters of civil rights obligations
(District of Columbia) Despite the claims of some critics that charter schools are largely unaccountable to key education mandates, the U.S. Department of Education issued clear notice this week that federal civil rights protections apply to all public schools.
That is, charters must comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which broadly prohibit discrimination based on race or sex. Charters are also bound by the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
“Charter schools play an important role in the educational landscape and are serving more and more students all over the country,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, in a statement.
“Since our last guidance on the topic in 2000, thousands of new charter schools have opened,” she said. “This guidance underscores that charter schools must satisfy the requirements of the federal civil rights laws.”
National data generally shows that charter schools struggle with federal civil rights mandates as often and in many of the same ways as traditional public schools. But there are some notable exceptions when it comes to admission policies as well as services to students with disabilities and English learners.
Just this month in fact, federal investigators confirmed a probe into the enrollment procedures at two charters in the Washington D.C. area after complaints were made that both improperly excluded immigrant children.
Court intervention was also sought last year by civil rights groups in Louisiana in response to charges some charters in the New Orleans area were refusing to provide “free appropriate public education” as required under IDEA.
In a letter that went out to charter school administrators nationally, Lhamon reminded them that the nation’s primary K-12 civil rights protections apply to all public schools regardless of whether they receive federal funds under the Charter Schools Program.
Also, charters that receive federal money either directly or through the state under any number of other programs are subject to the additional requirements as defined by each grant.
Here are some highlights from the guidance:
- Nondiscrimination in admissions: Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability.
Although public charter schools’ civil rights obligations are no different from those of other public schools in this regard, the fact that students choose to attend a charter school – and are not simply assigned to attend one – underscores the need to be mindful of the rights of children and parents in the community when publicizing the school to attract students and when evaluating their applications for admission.
Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions- and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreters and/or translation services.
- Free appropriate public education: Under Section 504, every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education – that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability.
Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.
- English learners: Charters must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs.
A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language-instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content. Federal civil rights laws do not, however, require any school, including a charter school, to adopt or implement any particular educational model or program of instruction for English-language learners; schools have substantial flexibility to determine how they will satisfy their legal obligations to meet these students’ needs.