Report: Some charters ask for ‘improper or illegal’ info on applications

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A new report found that some Chicago charters ask "improper" questions on application forms about students' disability status or language skills.

A handful of CPS charter school operators are asking questions about students on their application forms that a disability-rights group says could violate their civil rights.

Equip for Equality reviewed 40 charter school operators in Chicago and found that two had recently asked applicants about student disability or special education status, and six had asked questions about what language the student or parent spoke.

The nonprofit says it’s “inappropriate” for these schools to ask during the application process for personal information such as special education or disability status, medical needs, language proficiency, country of origin, criminal records, grades or family income.

“When a school puts a question on the lottery form, it suggests to parents that the information or answer will impact whether the student is eligible to enroll or will be accepted,” the group said in a report. “Any questions that discourage groups of students, such as students with disabilities, racial groups or students from other countries, could violate civil rights laws.”

The group wants charters to remove “questions that ask for unnecessary, improper or illegal information” that can discourage students from applying or lead school staff to counsel families not to apply to a school.

CPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Equip for Equality says application forms — which are collected before a student is selected to attend the school and before any lottery is held — should ask only for the student’s name and birth date, grade and the parent’s name and contact information. The family also may be asked if the child has a sibling in the school.

Any other information about student needs should be collected after the student has been accepted during a separate registration process, the group says.

The nonprofit released its findings Tuesday after gathering recent applications for charters and options schools, which serve drop outs or students who are at risk of dropping out. Their study did not include contract schools or charters closing this coming school year.

Other findings from the report include:

  • Nearly every charter school operator in Chicago failed to include a required non-discrimination statement on their application or the instructions to apply.
  • Two Chicago charter school operators — Amandla Charter School and Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy — asked for the student’s Social Security card during the application process.
  • UNO Charter School Network required applications to be completed on an UNO school computer.
  • Five of the 20 Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) campuses required students to hold a certain number of academic credits before they could enroll.
  • A handful of Chicago charters set tough application requirements for transfers, such as writing an essay or getting a letter from the student’s current school. Urban Prep Academies sets a high bar by requiring a personal statement, test scores, special education plan, GPA, class rank, attendance and discipline records and a high school assessment from a principal or counselor.
  • Four Chicago charter operators — Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, Passages Charter School, Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy and Chicago International Charter School — asked about the student’s birthplace. Passages also inquired about the student’s first entry to the United States.

At no point in the application or registration process can a school ask to see a student’s Social Security card or ask about citizenship status, the group says. That some schools do was among their most surprising findings, the report’s authors say.

“I’m sure you can imagine [what happens] if a parent sees questions about when they first came to America,” says Rachel Shapiro, an attorney who co-authored the report.

Noting that few Chicago schools asked about a student’s language or special education needs, Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), said, “I don’t think this is a widespread problem in charter schools.”

Because charter schools get funding based on student enrollment, Broy says, they have an incentive to enroll “as many students as possible” and not to send “hidden messages” to families that some students are not welcome.

Broy says his group has held trainings to help schools create proper intake forms. INCS promotes separating the lottery and registration process, he says, and offers model language for non-discrimination statements.

The report’s authors say it’s unclear why some schools ask for so much information upfront, though they say that in some cases it may be due to a lack of awareness about requirements.

Broy says some schools may ask for additional information in order to make staff hiring decisions. If a school sees a spike in applicants with certain needs, he says, they can start recruiting staff.

Equip for Equality plans to follow up with some schools to encourage them to update and improve their application process.

“It’s cheap and easy fixes,” says report co-author Charlie Wysong, who is also an attorney. “There is no reason not to have this in place.”

Broy says having a common application for all schools, including charters, would help address the issue.

INCS and CPS were working on such a form, but it got put on the back burner during the historic 2013 school closings and has yet to resurface as a priority.

“I think that would make the enrollment process much more… parent-friendly,” Broy says.

Application form photo via Shutterstock.com.