The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or national origin), Title IX of the Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination based on sex), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability). In a Dear Colleague Letter sent May 14, 2014, OCR explained that these laws, their implementing regulations, and OCR’s guidance apply to charter schools just as they apply to other public schools. Accordingly, charter school officials and authorizers must be knowledgeable about these laws and the particular issues that they may raise for their schools.

OCR’s guidance emphasizes that these civil rights laws “extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.”

The letter highlights four key areas where OCR commonly encounters questions or noncompliance by charter schools: equal opportunity in admissions, provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, provision of services to English language learners, and non-discriminatory administration of discipline. Each is summarized below:

  • Charter schools cannot discriminate in admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability. Because charter schools reach out to parents, who must choose to apply for admission, rather than enrolling all children within a geographical boundary, charter schools must take special care to ensure that admissions information is available to language-minority parents as well as parents with disabilities. Further, charter schools must ensure that any eligibility criteria do not have the effect of excluding students on the basis of membership in a protected class. Charter schools do have the flexibility to promote racial diversity or avoid racial isolation using a variety of strategies, as explained in greater detail in 2011 guidance from OCR
  • In addition to responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, charter schools have an obligation under Section 504 to provide students with disabilities a FAPE. Extracurricular activities as well as academic services must be accessible to students with disabilities so that they have an equal opportunity to participate. OCR, together with the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, will be publishing additional guidance on the rights of students with disabilities in charter schools in the near future.
  • With respect to English language learners, charter schools have discretion regarding how to address the needs of such students, but must take affirmative steps to identify language-minority students who have limited English proficiency and provide effective language instruction as well as meaningful access to academic content.
  • OCR recently issued extensive guidance with the Department of Justice regarding the obligation of public schools to avoid and redress discrimination in the administration of discipline. This guidance is equally applicable to charter schools.

While this OCR letter is not an exhaustive explanation of the obligations of charter schools under the civil rights laws, it provides a helpful overview of several common issues. The letter also directs that all state education agencies and charter authorizers that receive federal assistance have a responsibility to ensure any charter school they charter or provide money or significant assistance to is not discriminating.