Education

California officials: Public schools cannot require parents to volunteer

Polar explorer and motivational speaker Robert Swan speaks to students in the auditorium at Leonardo da Vinci School in Sacramento earlier this month. Leonardo da Vinci, a highly sought-after public school, prides itself on parent participation. It no longer states on its website that families will be penalized for not volunteering after a civil rights group last year brought attention to the issue statewide, particularly at charter schools.
Polar explorer and motivational speaker Robert Swan speaks to students in the auditorium at Leonardo da Vinci School in Sacramento earlier this month. Leonardo da Vinci, a highly sought-after public school, prides itself on parent participation. It no longer states on its website that families will be penalized for not volunteering after a civil rights group last year brought attention to the issue statewide, particularly at charter schools. rpench@sacbee.com

Public schools cannot require parents to volunteer as a condition of student enrollment, state education officials have advised local school officials.

The California Department of Education issued a memo last week after civil rights group Public Advocates complained in November that public schools across the state, particularly charter schools, had imposed parent volunteer mandates. Last fall, a handful of campuses around the Sacramento region suggested on their websites that parents had to volunteer 30 or 40 hours a school year and could make up hours by contributing a particular dollar amount.

Public Advocates found instances in California charter schools where students were told they could not participate in field trips or other activities because their parents had failed to meet volunteer standards. Some parents were told their children could join in if the parents bought classroom supplies or donated money in lieu of volunteering.

The civil rights group said the practice contributes to inequality because children can lose public educational opportunities through no fault of their own and suggested that low-income families may be less able to get time off or contribute financially.

“This is a good outcome,” said Public Advocates’ managing attorney John Affeldt said after the announcement. “The Department of Education agrees that it is not legal to require parents to volunteer.

The state memo spells out that schools cannot demand “volunteer hours” or payment as a condition of admission, enrollment, sibling admission privileges or participation in educational activities.

“We encourage parents to volunteer at their schools, but we want to make it very clear that no school can require parents to volunteer in order for a student to enroll in school or participate in an educational activity,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement.

Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, said the action means that the Department of Education, Public Advocates and the Charter Schools Association have clear guidance on the law regarding volunteer policies. He said he was unaware of any charter schools that penalized students due to lack of volunteerism.

As a result of the guidance, he said, members “have been adjusting documents to reflect what have been the practices in the vast majority of schools to begin with.”

While the Public Advocates’ research focused on charter schools, some high-achieving magnet schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District have been known to have parent volunteer requirements.

Leonardo da Vinci School in Hollywood Park, a K-8 program that has a long kindergarten waiting list every year, makes parent participation an integral part of its educational approach. As of November, the school stated on its website that parents with one child had a 40-hour annual requirement and that those who fell short “will lose sibling preference and may be given voluntary school transfer opportunities.”

The school has since removed that language from its website but says, “By enrolling a child at LdV, each family commits to 40-50 parent participation hours per school year, based on the number of students in the family. This commitment is needed to maintain and improve the educational environment that we enjoy and have come to expect for our students.”

The state memo says that schools can still request that parents volunteer a certain number of hours as long as students aren’t penalized when their parents don’t meet the target.

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross said Thursday that the previous website language was an error and that it was never the school’s practice to punish students whose families didn’t participate. He also emphasized that volunteering doesn’t have to involve spending time in the classroom or on field trips, and that schools have found other creative ways for parents to help schools.

“The notion of parent participation is a good thing, it’s something that everyone can get behind and agree that our most vibrant school communities are made so by the act of parents being engaged in their children’s education,” he said. “That means something different for different kids, and it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for enrollment.”

Some Sacramento City Unified schools still have hour tracking forms on their websites, but Ross said that doesn’t mean a quota system is in place.

“Tracking provides an opportunity for schools to have a sense of where the level of engagement is, so they can work with the community as a whole to say, this is an area where we can improve and look for creative ways for parents to get involved,” he said.

Parents who believe they are being required to provide volunteer time or funds at any public school can file a complaint form with the principal, who is required by state law to fix the problem or forward it to the district office for remedy.

Call The Bee’s Kevin Yamamura at (916) 326-5548. Follow him on Twitter @kyamamura.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments