Mandatory Volunteering In Charter School Criticized

Mandatory parent volunteering in some charter schools has led to criticism, as it discourages some families who simply don’t have the time or resources to be involved. Despite the charter schools being aware of the difficulty surrounding parent volunteering, they still insist on it. This requirement has come as a surprise to many given the well documented struggles of parent involvement in public schools.

A wide range of educational models, from a focus on team sports to a military school was included in the proposals for Washington state’s first-ever charter schools. However, according to Ann Dornfield of KUOW, a recent review of the 22 lengthy applications released over the past week found a common theme: high expectations for parent volunteerism. For example, once it acquires state approval, board chair of Sunnyside Charter Academy in Yakima County, Brittany Weaver said that 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 grounds-keeping.

“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,” Brittany said.

That kind of parental involvement is cited in the Academy’s application as important for student success and as critical for the school “to remain financially solvent”. 11 proposed schools lay out similarly high expectations for parent volunteering of the 20 brick-and-mortar charter schools that filed for authorization in Washington (two others would be primarily online, for homeschoolers).

Low-income families, whose children comprise nearly half of the state’s public school enrollment, find it really challenging to commit that kind of time. Many public schools already struggle with parental involvement. For instance, PTA President at Emerson Elementary in Seattle, 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,” Reese said.

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

Although charter schools are not legally allowed to discriminate among students, Gary said that, “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.”

And one mechanism is complicated application processes according to Gary. With another one being volunteer expectations of families.

“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,” Gary said.