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May 28, 2014 Practice Points

New Civil Rights Guidance for Charter Schools

By Jessalyn Schwartz

On May 14, 2014, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent a letter to education and child-focused professionals to provide guidance surrounding charter schools and federal civil rights law, stressing their commitment to high-quality charter schools. The publication discusses Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or natural origin; Title IX of Educational Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, along with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibiting discrimination of persons with disabilities. The letter stresses that these federal laws apply to charter schools regardless of whether they receive federal funding, and that additional requirements may be imposed on charter schools that receive funds through the Department of Education's grant programs.

The guidance goes on to discuss that charter schools may not discriminate in admissions practices and must utilize neutral criteria to determine eligibility. Parents who are not primarily English-speaking must be provided with information about the school and the admissions process via interpreter or translation services, and parents with disabilities must be communicated with in a proper manner. Affirmative steps must be taken for students who are English language learners, including effective identification and instruction practices.

If there is a desegregation plan in place, either by the state or federal government, the school's actions must be consistent with that plan. Schools may voluntarily elect to promote diversity, using race-neutral approaches, such as targeting specific media outlets, community groups, or socioeconomic criteria. If these methods are shown to be unworkable or ineffective, race-based approaches may be used if they focus on location of students or the school rather than on the race of individual students. Additionally, each student must be provided with a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and all disciplinary policies must be enforced in a nondiscriminatory manner.

If parents, professionals, or community members have questions about the civil rights laws governing charter schools or related issues, they are encouraged to contact their local Office of Civil Rights branch. Information may be found by emailing [email protected] or by calling 800.421.3481.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, charter schools, admission policies, discriminatory, civil rights laws, federal law, Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights

Jessalyn Schwartz is a member of the ABA Children and the Law Advisory Task Force in Boston, Massachusetts.

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