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Obama administration affirms that charter schools must protect civil rights of all students

The U.S. Department of Education today issued important guidance clarifying that the nation’s charter schools must not discriminate against children on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or language barriers.

The U.S. Department of Education today issued important guidance clarifying that the nation’s charter schools must not discriminate against children on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or language barriers.

This action is especially important in New Orleans, where we’ve filed suit over the widespread failure of charter schools to provide appropriate educational services to children with disabilities.

After Hurricane Katrina, the city rebuilt its school system around the idea of “school choice.” And now, 80 percent of the city’s children attend charter schools. That’s a greater percentage than in any other city in America.

But these schools, all independently operated, have simply failed to meet their responsibilities by providing children with disabilities the supports they need to obtain a quality education.


Photo by Matthew Hinton

We filed suit in 2010 on behalf of Noah and nine other students. Now, we’re seeking class action status to include all 4,500 students with disabilities in New Orleans.

In today’s guidance, the Obama administration affirmed that charter schools are subject to the same civil rights laws as other public schools, and are subject to the same prohibitions against discrimination. These prohibitions extend to all operations of a charter school, including enrollment, admissions, and discipline.

It means that charter schools may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability. It means they must provide access to the same supports and services that a regular school district must provide to children with disabilities. And it means they must comply with federal law governing the discipline of children for misconduct caused by, or related to, a disability.

Most importantly, the guidance explains that every state educational agency that receives federal financial assistance has, as a matter of federal law, an obligation to ensure that any public charter school in its state is not discriminating.

These are important guidelines that should put all charter schools on notice that their independence does not exempt them from our civil rights laws.