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Disadvantaged students at this school are performing far better than other students in the state, and this school is successfully closing the achievement gap.

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Some California charter schools (possibly illegally)
require parent "volunteer" hours

Page created October 12, 2014;  last modified Oct 19, 2014

An excellent 2013 expose by Stephanie Simon for Reuters, entitled "Special Report: Class Struggle - How charter schools get students they want," noted that "Hundreds [of charter schools] mandate that parents spend hours doing 'volunteer' work for the school or risk losing their child's seat."  In another excellent article "Charter schools put parents to the test" (2013) Simon asserts that requiring "volunteer" parent labor is legal in some states such as Florida, illegal in other states such as California, Georgia and North Carolina, and nebulous in Illinois.  The legality in other states is not explicitly discussed.  In both articles, concerns are raised that such requirements create a barrier to admission for some families.

Despite Simon's assertion that requiring service hours from parents is against California law, a number of California charter schools engage in this practice.
Legal or illegal in California? Conflicting opinions; indifference

On the face of it, Simon's statement that the practice is illegal in California appears to be indeed confirmed by the California Education Code:  Section 49011. (a) A pupil enrolled in a public school shall not be required to pay a pupil fee for participation in an educational activity. (......)  (4) A school district or school shall not offer course credit or privileges related to educational activities in exchange for money or donations of goods or services from a pupil or a pupil's parents or guardians, and a school district or school shall not remove course credit or privileges related to educational activities, or otherwise discriminate against a pupil, because the pupil or the pupil's parents or guardians did not or will not provide money or donations of goods or services to the school district or school. (c) This article shall not be interpreted to prohibit solicitation of voluntary donations of funds or property, voluntary participation in fundraising activities, or school districts, schools, and other entities from providing pupils prizes or other recognition for voluntarily participating in fundraising activities. (d) This article applies to all public schools, including, but not limited to, charter schools and alternative schools. (e) This article is declarative of existing law and shall not be interpreted to prohibit the imposition of a fee, deposit, or other charge otherwise allowed by law."

This same text from the California education code is quoted in a document "California Charter School Laws and Regulations: An Annual Compilation of Selected Provisions (Revised as of January 1, 2014)"produced jointly by Procopio, a California law firm that specializes in serving charter school clients, and the California Charter Schools Association.
Moreover, the California Charter Schools Association, a pro-charter advocacy and lobbying organization which counts many California charter schools as members, has a page called "Frequently Asked Questions" with the following Q & A:
"Will I be required to volunteer?    While parental involvement is a critical key to student success, no student would ever be punished or lose their place at a school based on a parent's volunteer hours. Decisions about parental involvement often involve an agreement between parents, teachers, and administrators."  This is noteworthy because this statement does not accurately reflect the reality (see below). Given that CCSA's membership largely consists of charter schools and their operators, it is hard to understand how CCSA could be completely unaware of the practices California charter schools engage in.
The legal firm of Young, Minney and Corr, which specializes in charter school law, has collected information to assist charter school operators.  One document it posts on its website is a California Department of Education memorandum dated 2006 in which Michael Hersher, the Deputy General Counsel, offers his legal opinion on whether a charter school may require an agreement to perform certain hours of work signed by parents as a requirement for admission.  The memorandum notes that there appears to be a conflict between two relevant sections of California code, but ends with the following:  "In conclusion, the Charter School Act does not expressly address the issue of parent participation requirements for admission to a charter school.  Parent participation is not one of the expressly prohibited criteria for admission or preference and is a factor that is relevant, if not integral, to the educational goals and philosophy of a charter school. Given the flexibility that was intended by the Charter School Act and the number of statutory limitations on admission that are already permitted, it is my opinion that a charter petition may lawfully include reasonable admission criteria, including a requirement that parents agree to do work for the charter school."
It is difficult to reconcile this legal opinion of the California DOE's Counsel with Section 49011 of the California code, as it is clear that work performed for the school falls under the very specific and clearly-worded prohibition on requiring "goods and services" from parents.  To argue that this specific prohibition does not apply because "flexibility" was "intended" by charter school law seems legally tenuous.  The California DOE Counsel was only offering his legal interpretation of the law, and if the matter ever were litigated, it is unclear whether the courts would side with him.
A legal challenge appears unlikely, though. 
So the practice continues, even though it might very well not survive a legal challenge

Here is just a sampling of California charter schools requiring "volunteer" hours from parents; this list is by no means comprehensive and more examples may be added.  At least one school says that the requirement is written in their charter.  Some schools tell parents they can pay cash to make up for missing hours and at least one school says that such "donations" are tax-deductible.
Manzanita Charter Middle School  -  96 hours per school year plus 2 school cleanings
From the 2013-14 Student/Family Handbook:
"Good Standing:
All families who have a child enrolled at Manzanita Charter Middle School have signed the Family Agreement Form. As this form emphasizes, enrollment at Manzanita is optional, and the structure of Manzanita relies upon the active contributions of our membership through participation (volunteering). In order to remain in good standing, all families must meet the requirements they accepted when signing the Family Agreement and enrolling a student at Manzanita Charter Middle School.
a. Good Standing Requirements
1) Parents/Guardians will attend 10 monthly membership meetings. (...)
2) Parents/Guardians will complete 2 mandatory school cleanings. (...)
3) Families will complete 96 hours of volunteer service throughout the year. (...)
4) (...)
5) 6th and 7th grade families who are not in good standing by January 31st will not be
guaranteed admission for the following school year.
6) Any family not in good standing by January 31st will not receive priority admission for a
sibling the following school year.  (...)
No family is exempt from the above obligations. ...  Any family that does not meet their participation obligations over the course of the academic year will lose their priority status for re-enrollment of a returning student, or priority enrollment of a sibling. Applications from families who are not in good standing will be considered only if spaces remain available after returning families in good standing and new applicants in the various priority categories related to volunteering have been accepted.
In 2010, this school went even further by informing prospective parents that if they contributed 50 hours of "volunteer" service before their child was even admitted to the school, their application for first-time admission would get higher priority, even though acceptance could not be guaranteed.  It is unknown whether the school continues this practice to the present.
Livermore Valley Charter School  - 60 hours per school year
Family-Student Handbook for 2014-15 school year: "There are many ways that families are expected to be involved and participate at LVCS. These are detailed in the Family/School Partnership that is signed by families with their registration. Through the Family/School Partnership LVCS parents or guardians pledge to: ... Volunteering on or off-campus for a minimum of 60 hours (roughly two hours per week) during the school year"
Valley Charter Elementary School (North Hills)  - 50 hours per school year, 75 hours for >1 child
Parent Handbook 2013-14 (accessed at school website Oct 2014): "Each family commits to fulfilling 50 hours of volunteer work at the school; 75 for those with more than one child at the school." ... "Parent volunteerism is key to the success of any school, but especially important at VCES, where our charter specifies that each family commit to volunteer for a minimum of 50 volunteer hours (75 for families with more than one child at VCES)....The school will contact families that are not visibly volunteering in order to help them find opportunities for volunteering."
Yuba River Charter School  - 50 hours per school year
The school website (accessed Oct 2014) lists as one of the steps in the enrollment process: "Complete and submit an Application for Enrollment and Parent Agreement, which includes agreement to volunteer and participate in your child’s education. Applications must be submitted within 1 year of attending a PIM [Parent Information Meeting]."  A document accessed at the school website, with a line for Parent Signature at the bottom, states "One of the commitments a family makes when enrolling into Yuba River Charter School is a commitment to volunteerism during the school year. ...The YRCS Volunteerism Policy states: Family Volunteer Commitment (From YRCS Volunteer Policy 1-4-2012) 'Each family is committed to contributing to the school in any way they feel appropriate for them and their family. The school asks the following commitment from each family: • 50 volunteer hours per year (5 hours per month)...' "  While the word "asks" rather than "requires" is used here, the Parent Handbook 2014-15 (accessed at school website Oct 2014) is explicit about the fact that this is a requirement with consequences for failure to comply: "Family/Parent Pledge: I agree to carry out the following responsibilities to the best of my ability: (...) Volunteer at the school for minimum of five hours per month. This could involve joining a committee or providing support to a committee. (...) Consistent disregard for any of the above may result in due process and the loss of a child’s place in the school."
(As an aside, this school also heavily pressures parents to donate $1200 per student per school year.  Moreover, some of the other parental requirements for keeping a child enrolled are overly invasive, such as "Refrain from supporting idle gossip and complaints," which is a clear violation of parental freedom-of-speech rights.)
Green Valley Charter School  -  50 hours per year per family
From the 2013-14 Parent/Student Handbook: "Parent service hours: Each family is expected to contribute a minimum of 5 hours per month (or 50 hours per year) per family. ... Tracking Parent Service Hours:  The Parent Council tracks parent service (volunteer) hours monthly."  Since this school uses the phrasing "is expected," it could perhaps cover itself legally by saying it is an "expectation" rather than a requirement.  The Handbook does not appear to mention what if any consequences are imposed for not complying.  Clearly most parents will read this as an actual requirement.
Santa Ynez Valley Charter School  -  36 hours per school year for one child; 60 hours per school year for >1
School website, accessed Sep 2014: "The volunteer requirement was written into our charter because the founding parents strongly believed that parents who are actively involved in their child’s education enhance the likelihood that their child will succeed in school.  At the beginning of school each family signs a compact to contribute a minimum of 3 hours of volunteer time per child per month (5 hours per month if you have multiple children attending), with a total of 36 hours (60 hours for multiple kids) contributed by year’s end."  "For every $25 donated you will receive credit for one hour of volunteer time.  This is a great way to make up for lost hours.  The money goes directly towards the school and is tax deductible!!"
New Heights Charter School  -  30 hours per year for first child, additional 10 for each additional child
The school's website has a section entitled "Parent Commitments at Home and at School," under which it states "Parents/guardians participate by volunteering 30 hours of time (an additional 10 hours for each additional child in your family ...  All parents will commit at least 30 hours of their time each school year."  About 10 hours of this required time is for obligatory attendance at school events.
Westlake Charter School, Sacramento  -  30 hours per year per family
From a school document with Q & A for parents:
"How many parent volunteer/participation hours do I need to report each year?  Each family’s commitment should be a minimal of thirty (30) hours per year.  Don’t stop at 30!  Continue to count and report your hours beyond 30. Many grant applications request information about parent participation.   (...)  Asides from volunteering, what are some other ways I can earn hours?  Everyone is encouraged to contribute their 30 hours through volunteering, but if you are unable to meet the 30 hour commitment, a total of 20 hours per year may be purchased/or donated.  During the 1st and 2nd trimester, up to 15 hours may be purchased/or donated at $20.00 per hour, equivalent to a maximum of $300.  In the final trimester, an additional 5 hours may be purchased/donated at $30.00 per hour, equivalent to a maximum of $150.  Purchasing hours, meaning you can pay directly for your hours.  Donation of goods, meaning donate items requested by the school/or teacher’s wishlist."
El Sol Science and Arts Academy of Santa Ana - 20 hours per school year per child
2011-12 Family Handbook(the most recent copy available online): "Parent Involvement:  Every family is required to volunteer 20 hours per academic year per child. Such activities may include copying, grading, filing, chaperoning, teaching/demonstrating, assisting, repairing, painting, or the sharing of special talents. Such service may take place during the school day, evenings, or even on weekends. Please consult your child's teacher or office staff for available opportunities. Families are responsible for recording their service hours in the school office."  The school was profiled on the National Charter School Resource Center's website in 2011, where the school's executive director is quoted as saying that "For other families, a $10 donation can be exchanged for an hour of volunteer time."
KIPP Scholar Academy (Los Angeles)  - 20 hours per school year
School website, accessed Oct 2014:  "Below are sample Commitment to Excellence forms signed by members of the KIPP Scholar Academy Team and Family at the beginning of each year."  The form that follows has a section entitled "Parent Commitment," and one item is "We will commit to volunteering for 20 or more hours at KIPP Scholar Academy per year in ways such as volunteering in my child’s classroom, helping serve breakfast or lunch, helping with arrival or dismissal, or helping with school activities."  Unlike KIPP Sol Academy (see below), the website for KIPP Scholar Academy did not appear to explicitly mention any penalties for violating the contract.
KIPP Sol Academy (Los Angeles)  - 10 hours per school year
School website, accessed Oct 2014:"All students, parents and teachers are required to sign the below 'Commitment to Excellence' contracts as part of their agreement to join the KlPP Sol Academy Team and Family."  As part of this contract, parents must sign under "We commit to volunteering at least 10 hours of service to the school each year (volunteering includes attendance at mandatory meetings, office/classroom support, etc.)."  The bottom of the form says "Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various KIPP Sol Academy School privileges."
Magnolia Science Academy Santa Clara  - 10 hours per school year
The website of the school's PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) states that "With a child/children in MSA, we welcome you as members of the MSA-SC PTO (Magnolia Science Academy, Santa Clara {MSA-SC} Parent Teacher Organization {PTO})! and further down: "Minimum Hours: There is a minimum requirement of 10 volunteer hours for the school year."  It would be incorrect to assume that this applies only to a subset of parents who have actively joined the PTO; at this school, membership in the PTO is automatic for all parents with students enrolled.

Psychological pressure; dubious benefits

Even charter schools that do not impose consequences for not "volunteering" may still put heavy psychological pressure on parents.  The words "strongly encouraged" are often used, perhaps leaving parents feeling that they or their child will be stigmatized if they fail to comply.  The Goethe International Charter School tells parents "Have you given your 50?  This is something you'll be hearing throughout the year from our faculty, staff and parent association.  Each year, every GICS parent is asked to commit at least 5 hours per month."  The school may claim that this is legally not the same as mandating 50 hours, but to parents such constant pressure may amount to a requirement.

One tactic used by several charter schools is to have a Q & A section with the question "Will I be required to volunteer?"  The answer then says all parents are "asked" to contribute a certain number of hours.  Legally, writing it this way may protect the school as it can defend itself by saying that the hours were requested, not required.  However, because the word "required" appears in the question, many parents will assume that it is obligatory. 

Some charter schools tell parents that their school cannot function or be successful unless the parents contribute.  The Goethe International Charter School says in its Family Handbook that "Parents' direct involvement with their child’s education is the lifeblood of a successful school."  This amounts to saying that "parents are destiny," which is in essence not so very different from the "poverty is destiny" mentality that charter schools supposedly liberate students from.  While charter schools wish to imply that they are molding parental behavior for the better, in actuality it is likely that their policies do not affect parental behavior itself, but instead skew the parent population by attracting those who want to be involved anyway and discouraging those who cannot or do not want to be.  Livermore Valley Charter School tells parents "Many charter schools are particularly dependent or even built around parent volunteer effort because of limited to no support available from a multi-school district administration and central staff," which is ironic as this independence from a central bureaucracy is the most common reason given for why charter schools supposedly function more efficiently. 

The term "parent involvement" is now used in the charter school world as a catch-all phrase for whatever the school administration wants parents to do to make their jobs easier, or to help their school become more profitable and/or more selective.  It rarely refers to parents having a say in how the school is run, although that appears to be more the meaning intended in, for example, Title I legislation.  With the phrase being so ill-defined, it is meaningless to invoke studies supposedly showing a benefit, yet charter schools generally preface the requirement of mandatory service with some lines about how "studies have shown" that "parental involvement" correlates with better student performance.  It is no surprise if some research has found that children whose parents voluntarily help them with homework perform, on average, better at school.  This does not prove that when parents clean the school's bathrooms without any compensation their child's academic performance will improve.  It does not even prove that academic performance will improve when parents are required to sign a form saying they will check their child's homework every night.  Furthermore, the phraseology some charter schools use when talking about parental involvement is almost condescending; it often seems to imply that parents need to be trained or mandated to "get involved," with a tone suggesting that the school knows best how they should go about it, ignoring the existence of parents who are already very successfully engaged with their child's education.

This is not to minimize the fact that parent volunteers make many positive contributions to public schools.  When it is done out of their own free will, it can be wonderful.

There may be taxpayers who feel that requiring parents to contribute unpaid labor in return for "free" education is good because it will reduce the cost of public education.  This ignores the hidden costs, though.  Creating stress on single, working, or low-income parents, or parents who are also caregivers, costs society too, by reducing their productivity, or forcing them to use social services that they otherwise would not need.

Finally, some parents may feel that there is a huge difference between helping out at a district school owned by and run by the public, versus a charter school owned and managed by a private corporation, especially if it is a for-profit corporation.
While some California charter schools offer parents the opportunity to pay cash in lieu of service hours, a practice that likely would not survive a legal challenge, others show great creativity in navigating the gray zones of the law.  Manzanita Charter Middle School of Richmond CA, in its 2013-14 Volunteer Handbook, tells parents they can count the time spent on making donations towards service hours:
"Manzanita welcomes donations of food, books and other items. As a public school however, we are unable to award volunteer time in exchange for goods. You may earn hours for the time you spend preparing or transporting donations but not for the actual donations themselves.
Examples of Hours Granted for Donations:
• A case of soda - your time shopping & delivering to campus
• A batch of tamales - your time shopping, cooking and delivering to campus
• Books from your student's personal library - your time selecting and cleaning up the books and delivering them to campus
• Computers donated by your employer - your time coordinating with your employer and your time picking them up and delivering them to campus
No additional hours are granted in these cases for the soda, tamales, books or computers."

It is noteworthy that the Manzanita school takes the position that overtly accepting donations from parents in lieu of service hours is not allowed, since a number of other charter schools do just that (see above).  This is additional evidence that either there is confusion about how the law should be interpreted, or charter authorizers are not enforcing it.
Spawning a new business opportunity: software to track parent "volunteer" hours

With the transformation of parent "volunteering" into a required activity, the school has to invest manpower and resources into ensuring compliance.  Out of this, a new business opportunity has arisen: selling software to track these hours.  For example, an outfit called "OurVolts" markets its software (group plan for non-profits: $599 per year, used, according to OurVolts, by at least one California charter school) as follows:
"Parent Involvement Improves Charter School Performance
Studies have shown that getting parents involved in their children's education at a school level makes kids more successful in school and life. As a result, many charter schools have parent volunteer requirements - anywhere from 10 hours a semester and up. In some locations, a certain number of volunteer hours from parents is required to maintain a charter school's status.
Parents volunteer for a wide range of duties, including administrative and promotion activities, bake sales, field trips, gardening, after-school programs, and more. Some parents even participate in school cleanup activities. These community activities enrich the lives of parents and students, who participate and grow together."

This transformation of what was once a spontaneous activity that parents engaged in out of their own free will into an obligation that must tracked with special software (that the school must pay for) seems like a step backwards for "parent empowerment."  It also runs contrary to the idea that charter schools supposedly have less bureaucracy.
Why complaints seldom come from parents at the school

Parents whose children are admitted to charter schools requiring mandatory "volunteer" hours likely consider this a price worth paying for what they perceive as a selective school environment that will somehow give their child an advantage.  Parents tend to value selectivity in a school (a more motivated parent body, or fellow parents who share their own values, or a higher-performing or better-behaved student body, etc) above all else, and some will even tolerate a corrupt and incompetent administration or poor teaching quality as long as they get the selectivity they want.  In essence, de facto selectivity represents a tacit bargain between the charter school and the parents.

For some parents, providing free labor for the school is impossible, perhaps because they are single and already struggling with two jobs, or cannot afford child care, or are already overloaded with caring for an ailing parent or a special needs child on top of a job....there are myriad such scenarios.  These parents are unlikely to have the resources to mount a legal challenge, and most parents would not want their child in the legal spotlight anyway.  Other parents may be heavily involved in their child's education, but may feel their time is more effectively spent reading a book to their child or engaging in some other form of one-on-one interaction rather than leaving their child with a babysitter or alone at home while they, say, clean the bathrooms of a school that is owned not by the public but by a private corporation.  However, even these parents are far more likely to simply choose a different school than to publicly raise objections.

Another key factor is that parents typically are not well-informed on charter school law.  If they start to ask questions, they invariably are given the "It's a school of choice" line.  Government offices tend to not be very receptive to parental concerns about charter schools, and do little to inform parents of their rights within the system.  In some cases, satisfied parents at a charter school convey the message to parents with concerns that they "don't belong" at the school.
Why the public should be concerned anyway

Objections to charter school practices are routinely countered with the "It's a school of choice" line.  Yet taxpayers must pay for these schools (which typically receive federal as well as local funds) whether they "choose" them or not.  As part of the public education system, which exists for the benefit of all society and not just parents of school-age children, they are the concern of all citizens.  Regardless of whether charter school parents are satisfied or not, the practice of requiring “volunteer” service hours from parents should concern the public for a number of reasons:

  • It runs contrary to explicit statements in the California education code that tuition or "goods and services" should not be required for admission to a school, and thus might very well be considered illegal in a court of law.
  • Penalizing students for what their parents do goes against the idea that public schools should be avenues of upward mobility to keep our democracy healthy.
  • It exacerbates inequality, as low-income parents and single parents are less likely to be able to give unpaid service time.
  • “Parents as destiny” is every bit as unfair and detrimental to society as “poverty is destiny.”  Children do not choose their parents, and public educational opportunities should be the same for all children, even those with the most deadbeat, absent, neglectful, or uninvolved parents.
  • It may unfairly exclude families where the parents are already unpaid, overworked caregivers for other family members.
  • It skews all comparisons between charter schools and traditional district schools, making research studies comparing them meaningless.  The practice is giving charter schools a hidden benefit (free labor) that has monetary value, while also enabling them to select for a parent and student body that is more likely to make their school appear “successful.”
  • The CCSA is misinforming the public and parents by saying that no school will penalize a student based on parents' "volunteer" hours.
  • Pro-charter advocacy or lobbying organizations are misinforming the public by claiming that charter schools are "open to all students."
  • There is no solid evidence that forcing parents to provide unpaid labor for a school, or forcing them to attend certain school events, improves student academic performance.  Charter schools may call this "increasing parent involvement," but students might benefit far more if their parents used the time to engage in freely-chosen one-on-one activities with them such as reading a book or visiting a museum.
  • This increased time spent at the school is not actually "empowering" parents.  They are told by the school what to do, and it is not giving them any increased voice in the school's operations.
  • Some California charter schools are run by for-profit corporations.  Why should parents, who have already paid their taxes, be forced to provide unpaid labor to a for-profit corporation in order to choose a certain public school?
  • Parental acceptance of such mandates often represents a tacit and questionable bargain between parents and the school administration, where parents are effectively saying: we will do this for you if you give us a selective parent and student body in return.  This runs contrary to the purported mission of the charter school system.

Finally, the lack of legal clarity on the matter is concerning.  Citing the California Department of Education as a source, the Santa Clara Office of Education is saying that charter schools may not mandate "volunteering."  Yet the CDE Counsel has issued a legal opinion to the contrary.  The public deserves a clarification.  Charter school law should be clear, devoid of contradictions, and adequately enforced.


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