Updated at 3:19 p.m.: I just spoke with Robert Schulman, a lawyer who represents Harmony. He called the agreement “a very positive thing.” Harmony does not discriminate against students, he stressed. “They had to make the appropriate policy and process changes that were necessary for full compliance, and they did.”
Original post: Harmony Public Schools, one of Texas’ biggest charter school networks, reached an agreement today with the U.S. Department of Education over how it enrolls and teaches children who have disabilities or are learning English.
The department’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the Harmony network and found that English-language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities “are significantly underrepresented in their enrollment in (Harmony) charter schools . . . compared to the enrollment of ELL students and students with disabilities in
the public school districts in the same geographic area.”
In the Harmony schools examined, 11.5% of students were learning English, compared to 22.5% of students in the neighboring traditional school districts. Students with disabilities comprised 2.7% of Harmony’s enrollment, compared to 7.3% of students in neighboring districts. Of the four Harmony school districts studied, three are in the Houston area. The fourth has campuses in Fort Worth, Grand Prairie, Euless and Duncanville.
Charter schools, which are public schools run by private non-profit groups, cannot exclude or discriminate against students based on their race, disability or language. They’re supposed to educate the same kinds of kids as traditional public schools — including students who may be more difficult or costly to educate.
The Department of Education did not find that Harmony blatantly tried to exclude certain students. But it did find practices and policies at Harmony that could have that effect. From the department’s letter to Harmony:
OCR (Office for Civil Rights) is concerned, however, that the exclusion from admission and enrollment in HPS (Harmony Public Schools) charter schools of students with a documented history of a criminal offense, juvenile court adjudication or discipline problems may improperly contribute to the lower enrollment of students with disabilities or ELL students in the HPS charter schools. Statistics show that students with disabilities and ELL students tend to be overrepresented among students subject to school discipline in Texas.I called Harmony’s main office in Houston for comment. The voice mailbox is full. I’ve emailed the school system for comment, too. As soon as I hear something from them, I’ll post an update.
In addition, the published enrollment procedures (which require students to provide their birth certificates and social security numbers, among other documents) may chill or lead to the exclusion of students based on their or their parents’ citizenship or immigration status. OCR is also concerned that the publication of these procedures alone may dissuade some parents of ELL students from applying to HPS charter schools.
The Department of Education’s letter notes that before the investigation was complete, Harmony Public Schools “expressed an interest in voluntarily
resolving the review” and proposed an agreement to resolve compliance problems.
You can read Harmony’s agreement with the Department of Education below. It spells out the steps that Harmony will take. Below that, I’ve posted the letter.
RESOLUTION AGREEMENT Harmony Public Schools Compliance Review Case Number 06-11-5004