Charter Schools' Volunteer Demands Could Deter Poor Families, Critics Say

Dec 11, 2013

Proposals for Washington state's first-ever charter schools include a wide range of educational models, from a focus on team sports to a military school.

But a KUOW review of the 22 lengthy applications released over the past week found a common theme: high expectations for parent volunteerism.

If Sunnyside Charter Academy in Yakima County gets state approval, board chair Brittany Weaver said, parents who want to enroll their children in the grades K-8 school will be expected to do volunteer work, from helping in classrooms to groundskeeping.

Children from families that have the resources and inclination to volunteer are also those who tend toward academic success.

"We will ask parents to sign a pledge when they enroll their children, understanding that legally it’s not a requirement. We know that the stipulation for charter schools across Washington is we cannot obligate families to participate," Weaver said.

But the Academy, in its application, cites that kind of parental involvement as important for student success - and as critical for the school "to remain financially solvent."

Of the 20 brick-and-mortar charter schools that filed for authorization in Washington (two others would be primarily online, for homeschoolers), 11 proposed schools lay out similarly high expectations for parent volunteering.

Most of those schools would ask families to commit to a minimum number of volunteer hours each year, from 10 or more requested hours at Rainier Prep in south King County, to a "required" minimum of 60 volunteer hours at Pioneer School in Spokane Valley.

The most common expectation cited on applications is 30 to 40 volunteer hours per school year, per family.

That kind of time commitment could be a challenge for low-income families, whose children comprise nearly half of the state's public school enrollment.

Parent involvement is something many public schools already struggle with. At Emerson Elementary in Seattle, PTA President Reese McGillie recalled approaching parent after parent at a recent school event to recruit volunteers.

"What I was met with was not any sort of insolence, or an attitude of not caring. Rather, the looks that I got were more disappointment, like, 'I wish I could help, I don’t have time to help.' 'I want to help, but when will I do that? I have four other children, I have a full-time job.' Maybe 'I have two jobs.' Maybe 'I don’t speak English.' And on and on," McGillie said.

Charter schools are aware of those impediments when setting up their volunteer expectations, said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University who studies how charters operate.

Miron said although charter schools are not legally allowed to discriminate among students, "charter schools are schools of choice, which means parents are choosing, but there are a number of mechanisms that charter schools can use to structure or steer which students and families are attracted to the school."

There are a number of mechanisms that charter schools can use to structure or steer which students and families are attracted to the school.

Complicated application processes are one such mechanism, said Miron.

Volunteer expectations of families are another.

"For many families, they see those requirements and that’s just a signal to them that that’s not a school that’s suitable to them. So there’s obviously some selection bias that can result," Miron said.

Children from families that have the resources and inclination to volunteer for the school are also those who tend toward academic success.

Without academic success, charter schools risk losing their charters under state law.

Weaver, the Sunnyside Charter Academy board chair, said she realizes that asking parents to pledge to volunteer for the school could discourage some families. In Sunnyside, many parents are immigrants who work on farms in the Yakima Valley.

"We have a lot of seasonal workers, so we recognize that in the harvest months we’re not going to expect to see those parents, because they're going to be busy," Weaver said. "But in return, we would say, 'Well, you know, please come in the seasons that you’re not working as much, and spend more time [volunteering] during those months."

Despite such flexibility, Weaver acknowledged that if her charter school is approved, its volunteer expectations will turn some families off.

"It’s a model that will work for some families. Some families want to be engaged. It’s not going to be a model that’s going to work for everyone," Weaver said.

Public forums for the proposed charter schools are being planned around the state for mid-January, but have not yet been finalized.

The state’s first charter schools are expected to be announced by Feb. 24.