Several Fresno-area charter schools, including the nationally recognized University High, have been cited in a report by the American Civil Liberties Union for being exclusionary despite state law that requires them to be open to all students.
According to the “Unequal Access” report released this week by the ACLU of Southern California, more than 20 percent of the state’s charter schools have policies that are discriminatory, denying enrollment to students who don’t have strong enough grades or requiring entrance essays or interviews.
University High School, a liberal arts charter school on Fresno State’s campus, was named among the country’s top 100 high schools by U.S. News & World Report earlier this year but is criticized by the ACLU for its prerequisite requirements.
Students entering University High must complete Algebra 1 or another approved math course with at least a “B” grade and must have two years of musical experience. Students are also required to show their past report cards upon enrollment.
The ACLU points to legislation that says charter schools must accept all students who apply if space permits and may not deny admission to students who have struggled academically in their previous schools.
But Dr. James Bushman, head of school at University High, said the prerequisites “spell out the kind of students that should attend” and ensure the success of those interested in University High. University High students graduate high school with two years of college credit. The school was ranked as the seventh-best high school in California based on test scores.
Like other public schools, it is illegal for charter schools to select which students to enroll.
“Are we exclusionary? No,” he said. “It seems reasonable if you are creating a school with a specific program that you may have some prerequisites to ensure student success. We do not pick the best students to come to our school. Rather, we have a minimum requirement … and then we use a lottery to pick our students from the very large group of applicants that meet this standard.”
La Sierra Charter School and University Preparatory High in Tulare County were cited for requiring students and parents to undergo interviews upon acceptance and for requiring an entrance essay.
Lupe Solis, deputy superintendent for the Tulare County Office of Education, said those parts of the application process are not what determine if a student is able to attend. If a student is turned away from a charter school, it’s likely due to a lack of space or facilities, he said.
“We’ve never not approved a kid to attend based on one of those essays. It’s just a place to start – to see what kind of intervention they’re going to need once they get here,” Solis said. “We’re going to clarify the application process. If it’s being misconstrued as being discriminatory, we certainly don’t want to do that.”
Morris E. Dailey Charter Elementary School in Fresno is cited in the report for requiring proof of birth certificates and Social Security cards, which can prevent immigrant or undocumented children from enrolling.
It seems reasonable if you are creating a school with a specific program that you may have some prerequisites to ensure student success.
Dr. James Bushman, University High head of school
Other Valley schools cited in the report include Fresno’s Academy of Arts & Sciences, Central Valley Home School in Kingsburg, Clovis Online Charter, Kingsburg Elementary Charter School District and Sanger Academy Charter School.
The ACLU report calls on the California Department of Education to issue guidance making clear that practices preventing some students from enrolling in charter schools are illegal.
“Although charter schools may be privately controlled and receive non-government funding, they are part of California’s public education system. Like other public schools, it is illegal for charter schools to select which students to enroll,” the report says. “These practices disadvantage certain groups of students, including legally protected classes such as English language learners, students with disabilities and immigrants, among others, by deterring or outright precluding enrollment.”
Lisa Taylor, site director for Aspen Public Schools – a new charter school opening this month in central Fresno and an extension of Valley Preparatory Academy – says much of the criticism that charters face is based on confusion about what they actually are. Charter schools are public schools – and often publicly funded – but typically have a specific, school-wide interest and have more control over spending and lesson plans than public schools.
“Teachers can actually decide what they’re going to do in the classroom. And we are highly collaborative. It’s a mindset,” Taylor said. “Our intention is just to be able to serve the population and give a choice to parents and welcome them to be a part of our school as valuable stakeholders.”
In other public schools, “parents often don’t feel like they have a voice,” she said. “They want to be able to be an advocate for their child, but they feel powerless.”
Aspen Public Schools, 1400 E. Saginaw Way, has no enrollment requirements.