A public facade for personal schooling: Why constitution faculties usually are not really open to all college students
As an educational policy researcher and author of a new book that I wrote together with my colleague Wagma Mommandi – Choice of School: How Charter Schools Control Access and Organize Enrollment, I have found that charter schools are not as open to the public as they are often portrayed to be.
This finding is particularly relevant given that enrollment in charter schools has reportedly increased rapidly during the pandemic. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, enrollment increased 7% from 2019-20 to 2020-21. The organization says this is the biggest leap in enrollment in half a decade.
In our book, we identify and describe 13 different approaches that charters use to attract certain types of students and to crowd out other types of students. Here are four examples.
1. Targeted Marketing and Promotion
By using certain languages in their promotional materials and targeting those materials to a specific audience, charter schools often send the message that they are looking for a specific type of student. This is a way for charter schools to reach or target a certain audience but not others, which in turn affects who ultimately applies to a particular school.
For example, the Mueller Charter Leadership Academy in San Diego said to prospective families, “All eligible students are welcome to apply. It should be noted, however, that this is a very advanced and demanding program that may not be suitable for everyone. “
Targeted advertising can also convey a message. The LISA Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, sent out targeted recruiting emails to the neighborhoods in 2016 – skipping the three zip codes for the neighborhoods that are heavily influenced by black and Latinos.
“They’re sending a message saying they don’t want the kids east of town,” remarked Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, after his newspaper exposed the practice. The school later apologized and stated that their plan was to subsequently reach these populations through digital advertising.
2. Conditional Applications
Charter schools sometimes require multiple essays or a minimum GPA as a requirement for initial or continued enrollment. For example, Roseland Accelerated Middle School in Santa Rosa, California required applicants to submit five short essays and an autobiography with a “well-constructed and varied structure.” Minimum GPA requirements can be set during the application phase or after admission. At the Lushor Charter School in New Orleans, parents and students are asked to sign a contract requiring students to hold a GPA of 2.0 in core subjects in order to continue enrolling.
3. Parents have to register “voluntarily”
Some charter schools require parents to volunteer at the school for a period of time or pay money instead of volunteering. For example, Florida Pembroke Pines Charter High School required each family to do 30 such “volunteer hours” per year, but allowed 20 of those hours to be “bought” – a total of $ 100 to cover the first 10 hours and to buy up an additional $ 200 for the next 10 hours. These requirements put an additional burden on families that are already economically troubled with time and money.
4. Aggressive use of discipline.
In so-called “no excuses” charter, which “sweat out small things”, students were – at least historically – severely disciplined for minor violations such as chewing gum or not constantly keeping an eye on the teacher in class. Some of these schools repeatedly suspend students and call parents to leave work to pick up a suspended child. The best-known example is the Charter School Success Academy in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York City, where school principals created a “got to go” list of 16 students who were then subjected to harassing disciplines. In one case, a school official threatened a 6-year-old with calling 911 because the child was having a “bad day”. Nine of the 16 students actually left school.
Function like private schools
In summary, these and the other approaches we describe in our book make charter schools more private than public schools they claim to be. These practices affect which students are admitted to charter schools and then remain in those schools. The choice of charter school therefore affects the demographics of the schools, including the degree of their segregation.
They also affect funding equity, as government school funding formulas often fail to adequately account for the real cost of educating different students. In Pennsylvania, for example, charter schools are funded through a system that creates problematic incentives for access for students with special needs. As explained in a report by the state’s non-partisan Special Education Funding Legislative Commission, the current funding system provides charter schools with “equal funding for every student with a disability, regardless of the severity of that student’s disability.”
“This creates a strong incentive to over-identify students with less costly disabilities and under-identify or enroll students with more severe disabilities,” the report said. For example, a speech impediment is an example of a slight disability compared to a student with, for example, a traumatic brain injury who is a more severe disability. The report states, “A student with a mild disability can be a financial boon to a charter school because the funding the charter receives exceeds the cost of the charter to educate a child.”
It is noteworthy that the Pennsylvania funding system does not create these incentives for district-run public schools. These practices can also play a critical role in comparing academic outcomes between charters and traditional public schools operated by a school district.
Overall, the research shows only minor differences in the average test results of the two types of schools. But the comparisons may not be fair and accurate. If charter schools can improve their test scores by weeding out students who they think aren’t doing well, it can give them an unfair advantage over public schools, which take all students.
Revised policy incentives
So what can be done to make charter schools more accessible? One option is to change policy incentives such as the Pennsylvania funding system mentioned earlier. States can also change the way they reward schools for how well their students do on tests. For example, Arizona has guidelines that provide additional funding to Charters and other schools with higher performing students.
In the last two chapters of our book, Mommandi and I point to a future with charter schools that don’t scrutinize or crowd out lower-performing or more expensive students. First, we provide examples of charter schools that have defied incentives to restrict access, for example by working to support the most marginalized students in their communities.
We then offer a design for a healthier charter school system that does not penalize these exemplary schools in terms of accountability and funding systems. Even in a post-pandemic world, enrollment in charter schools can continue to grow. But until the public no longer has access, charters won’t really be public.