By Jessica Cobb

New students are required to fill out an application, write a letter of intent, supply two references, attend a scheduled interview, and submit their registration packet with transcripts prior to beginning enrollment.

These instructions would not raise eyebrows if they were found on a college admissions webpage or a brochure from an elite private academy. But this policy is posted on the website of a public school in California – Delta Charter High School in Aptos – and it violates the mission of charter schools.

When charter operators open their schools, they make a promise that every child who wants to attend will have an equal chance of getting in. Indeed, that promise is required by law. But a review of charter school websites by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and Public Advocates, Inc. (Public Advocates) uncovered hundreds of charter schools throughout the state that erect barriers to enrollment that keep out vulnerable students.

That’s a direct violation of the public trust and the 1992 state law that created charter schools. In California, charters are public schools, which receive public funding. These schools are granted more flexibility in developing their educational programs, but they still must comply with many rules, including the requirement that they admit all students who wish to attend. As the legislature made clear when it created the charter system, the purpose of these schools is to “increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving.”

Yet many California charter schools are breaking their promises. The review by ACLU SoCal and Public Advocates found 253 charter schools with enrollment policies or forms posted online that are illegal or exclusionary. And these are only the violations that schools posted online; many other schools may maintain similar prohibited policies or practices that are hidden from the public view.

The review found that some charters “skim the cream” from nearby traditional public schools, selecting high achievers for enrollment through academic admissions requirements and pre-enrollment essays and interviews. Others shirk their duty to support English learners through pre-enrollment English-language proficiency requirements and requests for citizenship documents that discourage applications from undocumented children. Still others weed out certain families by requiring mandatory “volunteer” hours or by allowing volunteer “buyouts” through monetary donations.

These policies are rigged against the students who already face the most disadvantages. A boy who is raised in foster care may have no one to attend a parent pre-enrollment interview or fulfill family volunteer hours. A girl who translates for her immigrant parents may score below passing on an English-language test or struggle to write an essay that conveys her potential. Yet these children are no less deserving of educational opportunity than any others.

Like any other public school, by law, charters may not discourage or prevent students from enrolling based on income, national origin, academic performance, parent involvement, immigration status, language proficiency, or any other factor. If they have more applicants than spaces, they may choose students only through a fair, unbiased lottery or, in some limited circumstances, by the neighborhood where the student lives.

The California legislature put these rules into place because a free, quality, public education is a moral and legal guarantee. When charter operators create policies that discourage or deny enrollment, they betray not only particular students but also all Californians who are invested in the future of our state.

Jessica Cobb is legal intern at ACLU of Southern California.