Public Advocates: Rocketship’s required volunteer hours are illegal

Public Advocates call for an end to Rocketship’s illegally required volunteer hours

For many years, the San Jose community has questioned Rocketship’s required volunteer hour program.  Rocketship requires 30 volunteer hours per year, a discriminatory policy which tends to drive away working class families who are unable to meet the requirements.  Rocketship is a private corporation that receives public funding through state and local tax dollars.  Many of those volunteer hours are used to benefit the Rocketship corporation, not the students.  For example, Rocketship offered parents a 10 hour bonus to come to a city council meeting that would have provided Rocketship a special zoning exemption to build a new school.  Rocketship also offers volunteer hour bonuses to families who recruit other families to their schools; each new student brings the Rocketship corporation another $7,000 in tax payer funded dollars.  Rocketship’s volunteer hour policies are viewed by many as coercive, forcing working families to advocate on behalf of Rocketship’s corporate needs, instead of volunteering on behalf of their children.

Hilary Hammell of Public Advocates

Public Advocates is a non-profit law firm that “challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy”.  Public Advocates attorney Hilary Hammell released a report this week detailing a legal argument against required volunteer hours.  The full report can be found on the Public Advocates website.  Hammell found that one-third of all charter schools in California illegally require volunteer hours.  Hammell argues that requiring volunteer hours violates the California Constitution free school clause (Article 9, Section 5).  The required volunteer hours are effectively a charge that parents are required to pay in order for their children to attend the tax payer funded schools.  Hammell went on to argue that forced work hours discriminate against working parents who are unable to complete volunteer hours.  Hammell added that forced work hours violate the newly added Education Code clause which outlaws schools requiring student donations, a law written in response to a 2011 ACLU lawsuit (Education Code § 49011(b)(4)).

“Ultimately, if our demands aren’t met, we’ll have to consider every option including litigation,”  John Affeldt, managing attorney of Public Advocates, statement to Mercury News

Hammell is not the first to question the legality of forced work hours at Rocketship.  Last year, Morgan Hill Unified representing attorney, Laura Schulkind, wrote a letter to the County Office of Education stating that Navigator and Rocketship’s required volunteer hours would “effectively charge tuition”.  New County Office of Education superintendent Jon Gundry recently argued that Navigator charter school’s required volunteer hours (which include janitorial work hours), should be monetized in the charter’s financial statements.  Individuals have been questioning Rocketship’s required volunteer hours in public Santa Clara County Board of Education meetings for years.  Those warnings have been largely ignored, although Public Advocate’s threat of lawsuit may spur action at the board level.

Volunteer Hours for SCCOE
Rocketship regularly uses volunteer hours to benefit their corporation. In this Rocketship newsletter, the Rocketship Mateo Sheedy principal coerces parents to advocate for the Tamien Rocketship by giving out bonus volunteer hours and homework passes.  The Tamien school would have generated $4 million dollars per year in tax payer funded revenue for the Rocketship corporation, much of which flows to for-profit corporations and back to the national offices.

Public Advocates recommendations for Charter Schools

  • Stop requiring parents to work at the school or for the school.
  • Stop requiring parents to buy unworked hours with money or goods.
  • If parent service hours are not required but are only encouraged, make that clear to parents with language such as “no student will be denied enrollment, nor face penalties or dismissal, for failure of the parent to perform volunteer service.”
  • If a school wants to reward parent volunteerism, do so with awards or prizes for parents, not with educational activities or privileges for students.
  • Develop and scale best practices to facilitate truly voluntary parent involvement, and to overcome barriers to participation for high-need families. Ensure that parent service is not perceived as a requirement by any family.

Public Advocates recommendations for County Office Of Education and local district authorizers

  • Do not approve or renew any charter petition with a required parental work policy. Revoke charter schools’ charters if a school has a policy or practice of requiring parents to do work.
  • If charter authorizers approve, renew, or fail to revoke a charter school with an unconstitutional policy, the authorizer may be liable for the constitutional violation.
  • Investigate every charter school under your jurisdiction once a year to ensure that the charter school is not illegally requiring parents to do work at the school. If it is, begin the charter-revocation process if it refuses to correct its policy.

Charters in Santa Clara County which illegally require forced work hours (link to detailed report on each school)

  • ACE Alum Rock MS
  • ACE Charter Academy MS
  • ACE Charter High
  • ACE Franklin McKinley
  • Discovery Charter School I
  • Discovery Charter School II
  • Rocketship Academy
  • Brilliant Minds
  • Rocketship Alma Academy
  • Rocketship Discovery Prep
  • Rocketship Los
  • Suenos Academy
  • Rocketship Mateo
  • Sheedy Academy
  • Rocketship Mosaic Academy
  • Rocketship Si Se
  • Puede Academy
  • Rocketship Spark Academy
  • University Preparatory
  • Academy Charter
  • Village School
Required Volunteer Hour Schools
Map of Charter schools in California that illegally require volunteer hours