How charter schools choose desirable students

(By Matt McClain / For The Washington Post)
(By Matt McClain — For The Washington Post)

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says this about charter schools on its Web site:

Charter schools are always public schools. They never charge tuition, and they accept any student who wants to attend. Charter laws require that students are admitted by a random lottery drawing in cases too many students want to enroll in a single charter school. Charter schools must also meet the state and federal academic requirements that apply to all public schools.

A new story about charter schools admissions by Stephanie Simon at Reuters details how the reality of admissions at many charter schools is far different from the above rhetoric. She writes:

Students may be asked to submit a 15-page typed research paper, an original short story, or a handwritten essay on the historical figure they would most like to meet. There are interviews. Exams. And pages of questions for parents to answer, including: How do you intend to help this school if we admit your son or daughter?

These aren’t college applications. They’re applications for seats at charter schools.

These are some of the barriers to charter school admissions that Simon writes about in her story:

* Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.

* Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.

* Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.

* Mandatory family interviews.

* Assessment exams.

* Academic prerequisites.

* Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The U.S. Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K-12 schools.

Selective admissions in charters — which aren’t supposed to have them — is one big part of a growing narrative about public schools that critics say show that they act more like private schools, albeit with public dollars.

Another part is the issue of expulsions from charter schools, highlighted by my colleague Emma Brown this recent Washington Post story, which said:

The District’s public charter schools have expelled students at a far higher rate than the city’s traditional public schools in recent years, according to school data, highlighting a key difference between two sectors that compete for the District’s students and taxpayer dollars.

D.C. charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24, according to a Washington Post review of school data.

It should be noted that many charter schools do not engage in selective practices.

But many do, Simon found, and operate with little regulation and oversight. For example, she found:

When Philadelphia officials examined 25 charter schools last spring, they found 18 imposed “significant barriers,” including a requirement from one school that students produce a character reference from a religious or community leader.

Charter schools educate about 5 percent of K-12 students in the country, but the sector is growing and gets a great deal of financial and public attention from school reformers. The charter school-dominant Recovery School District of New Orleans is repeatedly praised as being a model for how charter schools can transform a city’s public education system — though those who do the praising ignore the fact that the charters in that district are performing at a very low level. (You can read about that here.)

One thing this latest probe into selective admissions shows is that charter authorizers need to step up oversight.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 15, 2013