Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Civil rights complaint charges Idaho’s charter school enrollment system discriminates

BOISE – A nonprofit that advocates for Idaho Hispanics has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the state and all of Idaho’s public charter schools, charging that the state’s charter school system has evolved into “a separate but unequal public school system that discriminates against students of color.” The Center for Community and Justice, which filed the complaint this week with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, says minority students, students with limited English skills, students with disabilities and students from low-income families all are vastly under-represented in Idaho’s publicly funded charter schools, and that the state has ignored its efforts to change that. “Idaho officials have turned a deaf ear to CCJ’s concerns and refused to engage in any meaningful discussion,” CCJ staff attorney Les Bock, a former state senator, wrote in the complaint. “These officials have suggested the lack of Latino students in Idaho’s charter schools is the fault of the parents; i.e, Latino parents have irresponsibly failed to pursue charter school enrollment for their children and therefore have no right to complain.” The complaint notes that while Idaho requires a lottery system for charter school enrollment, it also allows numerous groups to enroll prior to the lottery, including children of school founders and employees and their siblings. “More often than not, this leaves very few spaces available for those students who must participate in the lottery,” Bock wrote. The result, he said, is a system that favors students who are “well-connected” and excludes much of the public at large. The consequences of such a complaint can be severe; if an investigation finds violations of civil rights laws and the state doesn’t voluntarily agree to correct them, the Office of Civil Rights could cut off all federal funds and refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice. The complaint names the state of Idaho; the state Department of Education; the state Board of Education; the Idaho Charter School Commission; and all 48 of Idaho’s current charter schools and their boards of directors. Jeff Church, spokesman for state Superintendent of Schools Sherri Ybarra, said, “The Idaho Department of Education is open to a review of the charter school processes to ensure equity, and to ensure that all students have the opportunity to attend an Idaho public charter school regardless of race, color, national origin, ethnicity or disability.” A U.S. Department of Education spokesman said the agency’s Office for Civil Rights handles about 10,000 cases a year. It doesn’t confirm receipt of complaints until it decides to launch full investigations into them, which can take a month or more. The office has case resolution agreements posted for dozens of cases involving charter schools across the nation that have been targets of complaints in the past few years, many of them involving children with disabilities. Among them: A charter school in Illinois agreed in 2014 to make building modifications to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act; a group of virtual charter schools in South Carolina agreed to alter its websites to make them accessible to students with visual, hearing and manual impairments; and three charter schools in New Orleans agreed earlier this year to provide translation and other services for parents and students with limited English skills for notification of school activities, including parent-teacher conferences. A Texas charter school agreed in 2014 to add non-discrimination statements regarding disabilities to its enrollment outreach efforts. After a 2013 complaint, a Washington, D.C. charter school was cleared of charges that it improperly routed minority students into remedial classes, but required to improve services to students with limited English skills. The Idaho complaint cites a recent annual report from the Idaho Charter School Commission that examined the 35 charter schools under the commission’s purview; it concluded that the schools were strong on academic performance, but that fewer minority and low-income students attend them, compared to their surrounding districts. Among schools examined in the report was the highly rated Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy; it found that the academy had no special education students or students with limited English proficiency, and that fewer than 2 percent of the academy’s students qualified for free- or reduced-price school lunch, compared to the Coeur d’Alene School District’s overall rate of 40 percent. Statewide, among the 35 charter schools, 90 percent had fewer non-white students than their surrounding district; 87 percent had fewer with limited English proficiency; 55 percent had fewer special education students; and 77 percent had fewer students who qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunch. The complaint calls for revamping Idaho’s admission process for charter schools; adding busing programs; and requiring outreach to underserved communities as part of the enrollment process. Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho state Board of Education, said the board and charter commission haven’t yet been formally served with the complaint, so he had no comment. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Community Legal Aid Society filed a similar complaint about charter schools in Delaware in December. It charges that Delaware’s 1995 charter school law has resulted in the re-segregation of a state school system that was desegregated by court order in 1954.