Charters exempt from health and safety laws: study

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A central tenet for charter schools is freedom from administrative red-tape, which gives these schools the power to determine their own curriculum, tests and school calendar.

As it turns out, they also decide on health and safety standards for students. One legislator has already proposed a law to change that.

A recent study by the Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children found that because of a legal loophole, only 10 percent of Illinois health and safety laws explicitly apply to charter schools. The study identifies a host of state and local requirements for medical precautions—including vaccinations, food allergy safety and concussion treatment—that don’t apply to charter schools.

“We have no reason to believe that charters don’t require immunizations, but it’s alarming that it’s not mandated for them like it is for other schools,” says Amy Zimmerman, director of the Chicago Medical-Legal Partnership for Children and co-author of the study. “This is just one area where the state’s school code gives explicit health rules for public and private schools, but charters are somehow left out.”

The loophole is mostly due to slightly ambiguous wording in the state’s 1996 charter school law. It says charters must comply with “all applicable health and safety requirements” given to public schools, without specifying which requirements are “applicable.” Removing this one word, Zimmerman says, would snap charters into line with Illinois standards.

The report found that many charter operators lack concrete health policies. Zimmerman and her colleagues issued Freedom of Information Act requests to 25 Illinois charter operators asking about their policies on handling food allergies, asthma, injury treatment and medical record submission. Only 16 operators responded to the request, and of those, many lacked comprehensive plans.

Seven of the operators reported no official policies on food allergies, nine reported no asthma action plans, and only one reported a concussion policy compliant with Illinois High School Association rules.

“To me, those numbers are really shocking,” says Karen Goldstein, a clinical pediatrician and University of Chicago associate professor. “If you don’t have a policy on the use of Epipens or inhalers, it could be a potentially dangerous situation for kids having lethal reactions.”

To bring charters up to code, Illinois Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) has proposed legislation that would apply Chicago Public Schools health standards, which are even more stringent than state law, to charters.

“Every student deserves the same health and safety protections that children across the state – or a district – are entitled to,” Gabel said in a press release.