Charter schools put parents to the test

(Reuters) - Charter schools pride themselves on asking a lot of their students. Many ask a great deal of parents, too.

Nearly 40 percent of charters nationwide do not participate in the federal subsidized lunch program, often because they don’t have space for a kitchen or don’t want to deal with the paperwork, according to the pro-charter Center for Education Reform.

That can leave low-income parents scrambling to find a way to feed their children. Nearly half of American school kids are eligible for subsidized meals, and more than 90 percent of traditional public schools provide them.

Most states don’t require charter schools to offer transportation, so that’s often up to parents, too.

And then there’s the forced volunteerism. Traditional public schools can and sometimes do ask parents to help out, but they can’t force the issue. Scores of charter schools, however, require parents to work up to 40 hours a year - or forfeit their child’s seat. To meet the mandate, parents might chaperone field trips, keep order at lunch or direct traffic in the parking lot.

State laws on the practice vary. Florida allows volunteer mandates. California, Georgia and North Carolina do not. Illinois looks at each policy case by case.

The patchwork of laws created confusion for Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company that manages schools in five states.

Spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds initially told Reuters all families in the network were required to volunteer at least 20 hours per school year, except for rare waivers. Later, Reynolds said the company told parents in its Georgia and Illinois schools that volunteering was, in fact, strictly voluntary - even though parent handbooks and school websites described it as mandatory. Reynolds said the company was rewriting that material.

Another tricky issue: suggested donations. Traditional public schools now charge fees for extracurricular activities and materials used in academic courses - everything from workbooks to test tubes to copy paper. An honors English class might come with a $50 fee, and chemistry might cost $40.

As public schools, charter schools are subject to the same guidelines - and sometimes face even tighter budgets, since they often get less money from the state per student than traditional public schools. To make up the gap, some charters charge a lump-sum supply fee, which varies by grade.

A few go further, telling parents they’re expected to make big donations.

“It is assumed that public education is free. In reality, families face additional costs to attend a specially-focused charter school like TCA,” reads a letter from The Classical Academy, a charter school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which makes clear that all families are expected to make a financial contribution sizable enough to feel like a “sacrifice.” All parents are required to sign the letter. The administration declined to comment.

Pacific Collegiate School, a top-ranked charter in Santa Cruz, California, requires parents to sign a “Commitment to Excellence” acknowledging that the school will ask for a $3,000 donation and push for 100 percent compliance. In Arizona, the Great Hearts Academy network asks parents at most of its charter schools - all but the two campuses with the greatest concentration of low-income families - for $1,500 donations.

Administrators at both schools said they make clear contributions are voluntary, as required by state law.

They’re not voluntary, however, at Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Pingree Grove, Illinois. Families pay registration fees of $210 to $225 per student; on top of that, the parent handbook informs them they must invest in Northern Kane Educational Corp., which built the school, or risk losing their child’s seat. The minimum investment is $120 a year - or families can pay $5,000 for a lifetime stake.

Northern Kane CEO Larry Fuhrer said the requirement was put into place at the request of investors who backed the school’s bonds. He acknowledged it could be a “minor barrier” to enrollment, but said: “That’s the nature of the free market.”

A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Education said the state was not aware of the mandatory investment and would investigate.

Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by John Blanton