Office for Civil Rights Reminds Charter Schools that Federal Civil Rights Laws Apply Equally to Charter Schools

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On May 14, 2014 the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a "Dear Colleague" letter clarifying that federal civil rights laws, enforced by OCR, apply to charter schools. In the letter Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon states:

 "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 says. "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."

The Assistant Secretary lists some of those laws: 

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) (prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, or national origin); 

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II) (prohibiting discrimination based on disability).

Moreover, the guidance notes that these Federal civil rights laws and their specific legal obligations apply to all public charter schools in the United States, regardless of whether they receive Federal funds under the Department of Education's Charter Schools Program.

Regarding admissions, the letter notes that charter schools may have choice based admissions but points out that: 

"Although public charter schools' civil rights obligations are no different from those of other public schools in this regard, the fact that students choose to attend a charter school and are not simply assigned to attend a charter school underscores the need to be mindful of the rights of children and parents in the community when publicizing the school to attract students and when evaluating their applications for admission."

Specifically, that may mean printing materials so that parents of language-minority students can understand them, or providing interpreters or translating services. Charter schools must also avoid "admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification, and they cannot bar students from admission on the basis of disabilities. In addition, charter schools must be in compliance with district desegregation plans. 

Regarding disabilities the Assistant Secretary notes:

"Under Section 504, every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.  Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability.

Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities. '

The letter concludes by discussing discipline and notes:

"All public schools, including charter schools, are obligated to avoid and redress discrimination in the administration of school discipline on the basis of race, color, or national origin; disability; and sex. This obligation applies over the entire course of the disciplinary process, from behavior management in the classroom, to referral to an authority outside the classroom because of misconduct, to resolution of the discipline incident. The Guidance on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline25 offers detailed assistance on how to identify, avoid, and remedy discriminatory discipline. The discipline guidance document focuses on racial discrimination, but much of its analytical framework also applies to discrimination on other prohibited grounds. In addition, when addressing discipline for students with disabilities, it is important that charter schools comply with applicable legal requirements governing the discipline of a child for misconduct caused by, or related to, the child’s disability."

Finally the Assistant Secretary notes that OCR and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services plan to issue a joint guidance letter on the rights of students with disabilities who attend charter schools.