Civil rights group seeks crackdown on charter school volunteer requirements

Volunteer instructor Ariana Ebrahimian, middle, leads a team of volunteers in painting the world map on the blacktop at the St. Hope Charter School PS7 in Oak Park Nov. 6, 2003. During the daylong project, parent volunteers and Home Depot employees installed playground equipment, landscaped the school grounds, painted murals, built benches and picnic tables.
Volunteer instructor Ariana Ebrahimian, middle, leads a team of volunteers in painting the world map on the blacktop at the St. Hope Charter School PS7 in Oak Park Nov. 6, 2003. During the daylong project, parent volunteers and Home Depot employees installed playground equipment, landscaped the school grounds, painted murals, built benches and picnic tables. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

An education civil rights group asked state leaders Thursday to crack down on charter schools that require parents to volunteer time as a condition of enrollment, saying the practice violates laws meant to ensure public education is free.

San Francisco-based Public Advocates surveyed 555 charter schools, about half of all those operating in California, and found nearly a third explicitly require parents to perform unpaid work or risk having their children removed from the school or unable to participate in some activities. The group asked state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst to respond within two weeks or face potential litigation.

The civil rights group said in a 10-page letter that state law forbids schools from penalizing students whose parents do not provide money or donate services. It said that excluding students whose parents don’t volunteer “puts charter schools out of reach for children without well-resourced or motivated parents.”

Officials for schools in the Sacramento region, including two Sacramento City Unified traditional campuses, defended their practices as a way to increase parental involvement in education and said they do not kick out students whose parents fail to meet volunteer expectations.

Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, agreed that excluding students from a charter school because a parent failed to volunteer is illegal and inappropriate. But, he said, that’s not the practice.

“When we looked at the report out today, we saw that it’s basically dependent on a cursory scan of documents available on the Web,” he said, “and we don’t think that’s a very deep look at what has happened.”

Most public schools invite parents to volunteer in the classroom or through other activities, and state law provides worker protections for those who want time off to participate in their child’s education.

But Public Advocates is focusing on schools that prescribe a specific number of volunteer hours, ask parents to sign a contract before enrollment and suggest potential consequences if the hour threshold is not met. Such parents are often required to log their volunteer time electronically or on paper forms. Some schools allow parents to buy out hours; Westlake Charter School in Natomas, for instance, says on its website that a $20 contribution can satisfy one hour of volunteer time.

Public Advocates identified 18 charter schools in Sacramento and El Dorado counties, including two high-scoring St. Hope Public Schools, where parents are required to volunteer time each year. The survey did not include two of the highest-scoring programs in the region with volunteer expectations – Westlake and Rocklin Academy.

According to the website for St. Hope’s PS7, parents must sign a contract each year committing to provide 40 hours of service. Parents are required to submit a tally sheet each month with hours verified by school staff. “An on-going failure to complete this obligation will result in a review of the family’s status at PS7 by a team of school administrators, teachers, parents and students as stated in the Commitment to Excellence Contract,” according to the website.

But Jim Scheible, St. Hope’s principal at Sacramento High and a former PS7 principal, said PS7 does not remove students whose parents can’t volunteer.

“In no way does that impact student enrollment,” Scheible said. If a family can’t finish 40 hours of service in a year, he said, “the remaining balance is rolled over to the next year.”

While Public Advocates focused on charter school practices, some high-achieving traditional public schools have had parent volunteer requirements for years. Leonardo da Vinci School and Phoebe Hearst Elementary School, two popular open enrollment campuses in the Sacramento City Unified School District, require parents to volunteer 40 hours a school year.

Leonardo da Vinci sets forth an annual parent contract requiring at least 40 hours a year for a family with one child enrolled, according to the school’s website. “Parents who fail to meet the obligations of the contract will lose sibling preference and may be given voluntary school transfer opportunities,” according to the school’s website.

The Phoebe Hearst website specifies that families “are required to donate 40 hours of volunteer time per year” and can do so by helping in the office, ensuring safety on the playground or in the school parking lot or helping in the classrooms. Parents can also donate $5 an hour in lieu of volunteering to cover up to 20 hours, according to a parent participation form that families are asked to submit each month.

Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified, said Thursday the language would be removed from both schools’ websites.

“Parent participation is a part of the culture of the schools, and they have strongly encouraged parents to donate their time,” Ross said, “but the language on the website noting it is required is inconsistent with actual practice.”

He said schools work with parents to volunteer their time, with the idea that parent involvement is positive for students. In some cases, he said, a parent who can’t attend a school event might baby-sit for other parents so that they can attend. Or schools “work closely with parents to find creative ways for them to be involved. But none of that is required for admission.”

The Public Advocates survey did not include such traditional public schools, but managing attorney John Affeldt said “it’s equally illegal.”

“Anecdotally, we encountered more in charter schools,” Affeldt said. “But if the (traditional) public school is somehow requiring it and penalizing for it, it’s certainly illegal.”

Public Advocates successfully teamed with the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to win a state settlement in 2004 after contending that students, particularly low-income minorities, were forced to learn in schools in disrepair and lacked sufficient learning materials. Under an agreement with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state devoted an additional $1 billion annually to schools to ensure that campuses met minimum standards for textbooks and facilities.

Public Advocates also challenged the state’s High School Exit Exam, contending that it did not provide enough fair alternatives for underprivileged students to meet graduate requirements.

On the parent volunteer issue, Giorgos Kazanis, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said in an email that the agency is “grateful to Public Advocates for conducting the survey and bringing this matter to our attention.

“We do intend to issue a response once our team reviews the details of the report and can offer further clarity on what the law says,” Kazanis said.

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.