On May 14, 2014, the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) clarified what had been an uncertain area of the law for charter schools. OCR stated that federal civil rights laws, regulations, and guidance apply to charter schools just as they apply to public schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded independent schools established by school districts, individuals, or community organizations that operate under a charter with a local or national authority. Because they are independent, charter schools may adopt educational models and curricula not used by traditional public schools, which provides parents and students with more educational choices. 

Although charter schools have the freedom to create diverse and innovative learning environments, OCR’s recent guidance explains that charter schools must comply with the same federal civil rights laws governing public schools. OCR outlines four federal civil rights laws that apply to charter schools. This is not an exhaustive list, but it sets forth examples of some of the federal civil rights laws that now clearly apply to charter schools.

First, charter schools must provide equal opportunities in admissions for students and parents. This means that charter schools must use admission criteria that is both nondiscriminatory on its face and applied to applicants in a nondiscriminatory manner.  Schools must also ensure that their admission criteria does not have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Charter schools also may not discriminate on the basis of a student’s disability. With regard to parents, charter schools must also ensure that parents whose primary language is not English, or parents with disabilities, have meaningful access to admissions information. 

Second, charter schools must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, including an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular services and activities.  Schools may not ask students or parents to waive this right as a condition of attendance. These responsibilities are separate from charter schools’ obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and OCR intends to issue additional guidance regarding the rights of charter school students with disabilities under the IDEA.

Third, charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to support English-language learners.  They must identify these students and provide them with effective language instruction. Fourth, charter schools may not discriminate in the administration of discipline. This obligation applies to the entire disciplinary process, from classroom behavior management to referral and resolution.  Charter schools also need to ensure that they comply with applicable federal law when disciplining a student for misconduct related to the student’s disability. 

OCR’s most recent guidance is important because it clearly establishes that charter schools, although independent, are bound by the same federal civil rights laws as public schools.  Charter schools should consider how their current policies affect potential and current students to ensure that they comply with federal civil rights laws. OCR’s Dear Colleague letter may be found here: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201405-charter.pdf.

OCR guidance on requesting residency status:

In guidance issued in April the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights also addressed the issue of requiring documentation relevant to residency.  The guidance acknowledges that in order to ensure that its educational services are enjoyed only by residents of the district, a district may require students or their parents to provide proof of residency within the district. For example, a district may require copies of phone and water bills or lease agreements to establish residency. While a district may restrict attendance to district residents, inquiring into students’ citizenship or immigration status, or that of their parents or guardians would not be relevant to establishing residency within the district. A district should therefore review the list of documents that can be used to establish residency and ensure that any required documents would not unlawfully bar or discourage a student who is undocumented or whose parents are undocumented from enrolling in or attending school.

Similarly, OCR addressed the fact that many districts request a student’s social security number at enrollment for use as a student identification number. A district may not deny enrollment to a student if he or she (or his or her parent or guardian) chooses not to provide a social security number. See 5 U.S.C. §552a (note). If a district chooses to request a social security number, it shall inform the individual that the disclosure is voluntary, provide the statutory or other basis upon which it is seeking the number, and explain what uses will be made of it. Id. In all instances of information collection and review, it is essential that any request be uniformly applied to all students and not applied in a selective manner to specific groups of students.