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School Choice

Let's Get Honest About Charter School Enrollment

Some time ago, I enrolled a foster child at a charter school whom I’ll call Keasha. She needed a good school, smaller and more personalized. Brushing aside my lack of legal authority, we asked the receptionist for an application. She explained the school may not have any spots, described the school culture in fairly negative terms, not downplaying its clubs and afterschool activities, and noted that many students resented the closed campus for lunch. I still asked for an application. She then told Keasha that she needed to take an admissions test, which was a series of math problems. An admission test or any other precondition of enrollment into a charter school is illegal; they are public schools and by law must admit any student who applies if there is space, holding a lottery if there are more students than available spots. I am a lawyer and reviewed most of this charter’s policies years back, and I know there is no admissions test, but I have learned it’s best to just listen sometimes, without relaying my credentials, and see how far people will go. Keasha takes the test. She did well and was then offered a spot in the school. Rather than blast the receptionist, I met with the school’s board chair, a colleague of mine. He explained it was not an admissions test, but one to determine placement for its ninth-grade math classes. He apologized and said he would push to provide training to its leadership and front-line staff on these areas. I felt there was a racial tinge to the issue and the underselling of the school to a student who might be perceived as more difficult, and was a different race than the office person and the majority of the students. I really don’t think this was a policy, but really the way a front-line worker interpreted her job and chose to act, which had a particular racial impact. And as the initial face of the school, with wide and largely unchecked discretion, these front-line workers matter.

The ‘Good’ and the ‘Bad’

I have worked with charter schools for over two decades and I see the subtle and not so subtle ways schools can manipulate the student bodies coming in to increase the test scores coming out. Seemingly neutral rules can be used to screen out students: a very short enrollment window where only the chosen few are informed; creating hurdles to application, like requiring multiple meetings before providing applications to families; limited or no translation of application documents; limited distribution of these documents; and zero tolerance or no excuses disciplinary policies, where students are given little leeway and staffs full of excuses as to why they can only serve the “good” kids. I believe such schools are exceptions. The vast majority of charters do work to meet and serve the needs of underserved students. Also, the vast majority of charters are not created for money, but to help kids, and many charters show extraordinary results with needy students. But if charters are public schools, they have to serve the entire public and that means calling out bad apples for restricting access and demanding transparency about their policies and data.

All Jokes Aside

We need to track and publicize charter schools’ data on enrollment, attrition, discipline and expulsion, and this data should be shared with parents as they make their choices. Charter authorizers should require the tracking and publication of this data and impose financial penalties when schools fall short. I joke during trainings that I know a two-step secret to achieving higher test scores: recruit high achievers and kick out the “bad” kids. Unfortunately, there is some truth underlying the joke, which echoes across all sectors of American education. While some laugh at the joke, others frown—and a third group takes notes.  
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. An earlier version of this post appeared on his blog, The Silent Majority, as Getting Honest On Charter School Admissions, and Catching Bad Actors.
Dirk Tillotson
Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his ...

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