Bruce Maiman

Parents unfairly forced to volunteer at charter schools

Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host living in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio show host living in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@gmail.com.

A new report is either a warning or a reminder that charter schools are not the deified institutions some people believe they are. Indeed, when you look deeper, you’re stunned that certain policies even exist.

A yearlong investigation by San Francisco-based Public Advocates found that a third of California’s 1,100 charter schools require parents to do volunteer work on campus as a condition of enrollment or participation in school functions. The duties included the typical – classroom aides, crossing guards, field trip chaperons – but also cleaning toilets and yard work.

Some charters let you buy your way out of volunteering by giving the school $5 or $10 for every hour required. “So any parent who can’t afford the time is essentially paying tuition,” report author Hilary Hammell told me.

Some schools even require parents to track their hours helping kids with homework, log them and submit them for approval. “The results were definitely striking,” said state Department of Education spokesman Giorgos Kazanis. A department response is expected early next month.

California Charter School Association CEO Jed Wallace agrees these mandates are unlawful and inappropriate, but he claims investigators didn’t visit any charter campuses and relied mostly on documents available online. “No one’s ever been excluded from our schools or a school activity because of a parent volunteer program,” he told me. “It just hasn’t happened.”

But it has.

From Hammell, who interviewed parents forced to volunteer, I learned of three recent instances at just one school in Sacramento, including a student with perfect attendance barred from her eighth-grade graduation ceremony because her mother was short three volunteer hours. Another student couldn’t attend a field trip because the school decided the volunteer hours the mom had logged were “the wrong kind.”

Nearly two dozen schools named in last week’s report are in the Sacramento region, including eight in the Sacramento City Unified School district. None that I contacted returned my calls.

“A lot of charter schools get started by parents,” Wallace explained, “I think they offer big pledges to one another about how involved they’re going to be and they may be encouraging schools to have volunteer efforts that reflect the initial spirit of the school getting off the ground. Years later you end up having documents on the website that are overzealous.”

Hammell tells me that a Department of Education letter from 2006 suggests volunteer requirements are legal, and that some charter school lawyers are using it to advise their clients. But the state education code has been amended “to make extra clear that requiring parents to donate services is illegal,” she added.

This is where I’m left flabbergasted. A 1984 California Supreme Court ruling also barred public schools from charging fees as a condition of enrollment or participation in activities, including “donation of service.”

I doubt many parents know this, even those who founded charter schools, but how can school lawyers not know this? How do administrators not know the laws governing their schools? How is it acceptable to demand, as one school handbook does, that parents volunteer 50 hours per year, 75 if you have more than one child?

Another school instructs: “A parent who does unpaid yard work or acts as an unpaid teacher’s aide for an hour at her child’s school must forgo an hour of paid work somewhere else; must pay for child care for that hour; or must otherwise incur costs and forgo economic opportunity for that hour.”

You get that? Tell your boss you can’t work this morning because the school requires that you mow their lawn. One school handbook states that parent volunteers “keep our operational costs down.”

Want to save money? Instead of indentured servitude, sanction administrators, fire your attorneys, demand refunds and find people who know the law.

I suspect a big reason the volunteering rules go unquestioned is because there’s a wide perception that charters are private schools. They’re not; they’re public and must follow the laws governing public schools.

Ultimately, this is symptomatic of a larger underlying problem – inadequate regulation or oversight. It doesn’t seem to be occurring at the site level, the organizational level or the state level. It took a public advocacy group to look under the hood, see what’s there and hopefully shake some rafters.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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