Feds issue civil rights guidance to charter schools

Photo of desks in empty classroom
Equal Opportunity in Charter Schools

On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter May 14 to charter schools nationwide regarding their obligations under federal civil rights laws.

As charter schools have increased in popularity in recent years, they have been criticized by many disability rights advocates for low enrollment numbers of students with disabilities, as well as the perception that they exclude this population to boost their testing ratings.

In regard to admissions, the DOE stated that since enrollment at charter schools is choice-based, unlike regular public schools, charter schools may have to make “special considerations” to ensure access to information about application processes.

“I am writing to remind you that the Federal civil rights laws, regulations, and guidance that apply to charter schools are the same as those that apply to other public schools,” the letter states. “For this reason, it is essential that charter school officials and staff be knowledgeable about Federal civil rights laws.

“These 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.”

In June 2012, the Government Accountability Office released a report, finding that just eight percent of students enrolled in charter schools nationwide have disabilities, compared to 11 percent in other public schools.

The letter states that the Office of Civil Rights is working with the DOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to prepare guidance for charter schools regarding their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which governs special education.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights and disability advocacy organizations, applauded the guidance.

“We applaud the Department of Education for releasing this very important, long-overdue guidance, which makes crystal clear that charter schools – like all public schools – have a federal obligation to ensure that all children, regardless of race, national origin, sex, or disability status, receive a fair and equal opportunity to succeed,” the coalition said in a news release.