ACLU report slams Arizona charter school enrollment policies

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Hundreds of Arizona's state-funded charter schools use discriminatory enrollment policies to close their doors to certain students, according to a report released Thursday by a civil rights group.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona said an investigation found numerous schools had admission requirements that seemed intent on deterring students with certain vulnerabilities. They include disabilities, English-learning needs and past disciplinary issues, the report said.

"'School choice' means that families should be choosing schools, not the other way around," ACLU of Arizona executive director Alessandra Soler said in a statement.

The Arizona Charter Schools Association lambasted the report, calling it a "hit piece" and accusing the organization of going on an "anti-charter witch hunt."

"There's nothing there," said President and CEO Eileen Sigmund. "It has a slant. Eighty-four percent of our students are in district schools. They purposely limited this to charter schools."

According to the ACLU, the study was spurred by a rise in complaints about charter schools in recent years.

Sigmund said the report does not paint a complete picture because the ACLU went out of its way to solicit people with negative experiences.

"Arizona charter schools are public schools and they're open to every family. That's the law," Sigmund said. "Our schools are educating a student population that is diverse."

The ACLU analyzed 471 charter schools statewide. Roughly 260 schools conduct enrollment in ways that could be seen as unlawful, the group said.

Under state law, charter schools cannot limit admission based on disability, proficiency in English, income level, ethnicity, national origin, gender or athletic ability.

The report highlights six schools the ACLU said put a cap on the number of special education students it will accept. The ACLU further alleged that some schools try to talk parents of disabled children out of enrolling rather than provide mandated special education programs.

The report also claimed nearly 60 charter schools have denied admittance to students with suspensions on their records. According to state law, schools can turn away students who have been expelled.

Other grievances mentioned in the report include essay or interview requirements in the admissions process. The ACLU is recommending it be made clear that either of those components have no bearing on whether a student is admitted. The group also is calling on more schools to offer enrollment documents online in both English and Spanish.

Charter schools are monitored by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. The state regulator provides clear guidance on proper enrollment practices, executive director Ashley Berg said in a statement. Any complaints about enrollment practices are reviewed and schools found to be in violation are held accountable.

"Any accusation that the board has ignored a complaint about discriminatory enrollment practices is simply false," Berg said.

Arizona has 546 charter schools with about 180,000 students currently enrolled.

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