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Charter Schools Aren’t Creaming the Best Students

Comprehensive Data Discounts Reuters’ Selectivity Claims

A series of articles by Stephanie Simon for Reuters News, published on Friday, February 15, and subsequently in papers in several states nationwide, portrays charter schools  generally as selective in their admissions processes and “[leaving] low-income parents scrambling to find a way to feed their children.”

The allegations of widespread selectivity are deeply exaggerated. Make no mistake – concerns over selective admissions criteria out of the scope of accepted methods for charter school enrollments and policies (addressed later in this piece) should be taken seriously, and authorizers are obligated to govern school policies according to very clear rules and oversight practices. Yet, authorizers are not all quality actors. Evidence shows that school districts and state education department related charter entities are often too overwhelmed and mired in bureaucracy to steward charter schools properly. But whether there are issues in how charter schools enroll students or not because of the actions of an authorizer or school, there is simply no room for conjecture or misappropriation of facts when analyzing how schools conduct themselves.

The Reuters series has been analyzed and the suppositions will continue to be vetted in the coming days. However, the following evidence demonstrates that the characterizations of schools and data published by Reuters are deeply distorted.

1) Data regarding the free and reduced lunch program provided by the Center for Education Reform (CER) is completely mischaracterized. CER data shows that most charter schools do indeed feed all of their students, yet nearly 40% do not participate in the federal program because of the limitations that program imposes on their use of resources and the requirements for application and compliance that are not related to providing nutritious meals.

Schools surveyed cite lack of facilities, administrative burdens, and requirements on staffing and compliance issues, as among the reasons they do not file for federal subsidies to participate. Schools participating in the federal lunch program, for example, are often told they may not hire parents to serve food or help with clean up; that volunteers are not permitted in the food prep area, and that certain local or neighborhood food providers are not acceptable. Charters in impoverished areas nobly seek to provide members of their communities with the business of their school, rather than pay national, expensive providers, with less desirable food to do the work.

2) Application and enrollment criteria in many of the schools cited is misrepresented as selectivity. Information sought by schools in the application period and leading up to their enrollment or lottery process is most often used to prepare for the eventual enrollment of that student. Imagine a period where hundreds of applications to enroll are filed, and when the students are admitted, trying to get paperwork filled out to ensure the student is properly identified for grade, potential special needs, address, parent or guardian contact, health, etc. It makes sense that administratively lean organizations would take as much information as possible up front so that if and when the child is admitted, the process of getting them prepared for the school can begin swiftly.

There are clearly some schools that ask more, and those, though they exist, are in the minority. College prep schools, schools with a specific specialty or orientation of philosophy or approach may indeed require questionnaires or additional information from applicants to ensure that they understand that the high school requires all students to take AP classes, or that the school is for boys and will require Latin study, or that it requires hands-on science discovery and frequent field trips, or that its approach is Montessori, Classical or Arts-based, or whatever it may be, clearly has a specific learning specialty designed to provide an option for students who are not always successful or fit into the traditional public school mold. The reporting in these articles suggests anyone who does impose information requirements on parents are conducting nefarious or illegal behavior rather than attempting to ensure that the students are seeking the right fit for them. Since charter schools started in opposition to cookie cutter schools and districts where everything is the same and little variety existed, making these schools possible is welcome news. Yet, the reporter’s logic fails over and over again to recognize the distinction between selective admissions and informational guidance:

• The Roseland Accelerated Middle School in Santa Rosa is described in the report as requiring parents and students to provide personal and academic information and has an autobiographical writing requirement. While the law does not expressly prohibit invoking additional information from applicants, it prohibits choosing a student body based on selectivity. Yet the Santa Rosa superintendent interviewed did not say that they use these data points to select students, but to “set the tone” that this is a rigorous college prep environment. Roseland Accelerated Middle School is a district-based charter in Santa Rosa whose enrollment and registration requirements are managed entirely by the district, which is the authorizer in California for all charter schools other than those approved on appeal by the state board or special statewide charter schools. (Universities are not authorizers in the state of California, a factual error the reporter makes in the article.) The district itself has seven schools and they have created schools in response to demand for more “high quality options” according to their website. A district leader working to stem the tide of people exiting to other schools and even private schools should be highly praised for encouraging students and families to understand the rigor they have set is transparent.

• In Illinois, Cambridge Lakes Charter School charges tuition, which is entirely illegal and wrong in an open admissions charter. Yet, the school charges tuition to out of district residents as is required by law. Illinois’ charter law does not permit open enrollment; enrollment in district schools is decided by zoning and in charters they must comply with the same rules. A student wanting to be admitted from outside of the district is treated like all other public school students. This same school, however, allegedly charges application fees, a problem, if true, that should not be permitted by the authorizer, which is the Community Unit School District 300.

• Gateway High School, a charter in San Francisco, is said to require essays and answers to dozens of questions to apply and be considered for enrollment. This same school was noted in a piece published in October 2011, in the Washington Post, by columnist Jay Mathews, which appears to have influenced some of the Reuters reporting. In that article, Gateway’s director spoke to Mathews and he reported, “Gateway Executive Director Sharon Olken defends her application essay questions as a way to help parents and students think through what kind of school they want. Their answers are not read until after they are admitted. Nearly half of Gateway students are from low-income homes, close to the city average, despite the long form.”

This is in line with experiences nationwide — charters work to ensure they collect all the information about a student that they can in order to ensure a smooth transition into the school. In addition, many schools report that they want to ensure that a student and his family understand the foundation or context of the school.

• The reporter speaks to one parent in Philadelphia who attempted to enroll her child in a charter but because she was asked for a social security number she was angered because as she said, “It’s my child’s right to receive an education even though he was born in Mexico.” The inference by the article is that charters are trying to keep out children when federal law otherwise requires they educate. However, federal law is clear that while a school must educate everyone, they can require proof of residency for district placement, as well as ask for a social security number. There is nothing discriminatory about this, as schools must file paperwork for every child. They cannot force a parent to give them this information, but they are entitled to vet the students that apply for enrollment.

• The reporter also accuses many charters of requiring parental involvement, via contracts, so much so that supposedly parents are discouraged from seeking enrollment because of these onerous requirements. Parent service hours are strongly encouraged and many charters do indeed say they require parents to sign contracts that they will give a certain amount of hours to the school. While reasonable people can disagree on this point, this is hardly discouraging low-income and poor parents from trying to enroll in charter schools, which are oversubscribed in urban areas. The reporter suggests that the child of a parent who doesn’t sign such a document or provide hours would result in that child not getting into the school. The reality is that such a commitment on an application has no bearing on the lottery status of a student, and the reporter provides no evidence to the contrary.

3) State policy is entirely misconstrued in the articles as the reporter cites several states that expressly permit selectivity. A close look at the law in each reveals an incredible lack of understanding of state policy:

• Delaware’s law states that preferences in student admission to a charter may be considered for a number of reasons including their proximity to the school, whether students are at-risk or have a specific interest in the school’s educational program and philosophy.

• Charters in Florida may limit the enrollment process to target specific student populations based on age groups and levels, at-risk or that meet reasonable standards as set by the school’s mission and purpose.

• Louisiana law allows schools to set admissions requirements “that are consistent with the school’s role, scope and mission.” It offers as an example that if a charter is a performing arts school, it is reasonable that the school might require an audition.

• New Hampshire permits charters to “select pupils on the basis of aptitude, academic achievement, or need, provided that such selection is directly related to the academic goals of the school.”

• Admission to charters in Ohio may be limited to targeted populations such as grade-level, special needs or at-risk, but it explicitly states, “That the school may not limit admission to students on the basis of intellectual ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, or athletic ability.”

• Texas law requires priority first be given to students based on geography and residency and “secondary consideration may be given to a student’s age, grade level, or academic credentials in general or in a specific area, as necessary for the type of program offered.”

None of these are selective as the definition goes or as negatively inferred by the reporter – these are all criteria that transcend picking kids based on ability. It’s about establishing criteria that support the mission of the schools.

CER will investigate additional points raised by the reporter and publish those findings subsequently. Charter schools are public schools of choice, intended to meet the needs of children not otherwise provided for in most other traditional public schools. They are held to high standards. Violations are few and quality authorizers are rarely at fault. The small incidences of problems that may exist in setting admissions criteria are usually isolated to school districts, which have the lion’s share of problems with chartering. It’s time to reform laws that place control solely in the hands of local and state education agencies. It’s also time for accurate and fair reporting.