Charter schools dozen dirty tricks.

From the NEPC, by Kevin Welner

 #1: Description and Design: Which

designers of a new charter school face a variety of decisions. Will the school
portray itself as focused on rigorous academics? Or perhaps the design will cater
to children with autism? Will it have the facilities to provide free or
reduced-price lunch? Will it have teachers for English learners and for
students with special needs? In short, which niche will it be designed to fill?
Given the high-stakes accountability context, a school designed to serve an
at-risk student population will face greater survival obstacles. Low test
scores lead to lower school performance ratings and eventually to closure. In
contrast, high test scores lead to acclaim and to positive word-of-mouth from
realtors, press, friends and neighbors. In short, nothing succeeds like
success, and the greatest determinants of success are the raw materials – the
students who enroll.
Location, Location, Location
has long been recognized by the courts, the siting of a school is an effective
way to influence student demographics (Kennedy, 2007). A school that intends to
serve students who live in an urban area will locate in that neighborhood,
while a school with an intent to serve a suburban population will make a
different decision. Because families with less wealth tend to have fewer
transportation options, this is particularly important when thinking about
disadvantaged groups.
Mad Men: The Power of Marketing and Advertising
schools are not allowed to directly select students based on those students’
demographic characteristics. But if a school wants to enroll English learners,
it will produce and distribute materials in the first language of those
families. If it does not, it will produce and distribute materials
overwhelmingly in English. Similar decisions can be made regarding special
needs populations and lower-income populations. And if it wants students with
higher incoming test scores and a drive to excel academically, it can advertise
as “college prep” and highlight the rigor of its curriculum. Even the visual
images used in marketing materials can send distinct messages about who is
welcome and who is not. When a school makes deliberate decisions about how and
where to market, it is exercising influence over who applies.
Hooping It Up: Conditions Placed on Applications
the application process, charter schools can control the pipeline that leads to
enrolled students. If less desirable students do not apply, they will not be
enrolled. Charter schools are usually in charge of their own application
processes, and many impose a daunting array of conditions. These include
lengthy application forms such as a required essay simply to get into the
lottery, mandatory character references, parents required to visit the school
before applying, short time windows to file the applications, special
‘pre-enrollment’ periods for insiders, and admissions tests to determine grade
placement or learning group. These policies and practices can directly turn
away families (I’m sorry, but you can’t enroll here because you didn’t
). Further, they can serve their purpose by discouraging parents who
lack the time, resources, or overall commitment to jump through the hoops.
As Long As You Don’t Get Caught: Illegal and Dicey Practices
noted earlier, Simon (2013) documents instances of charter schools that require
applications to “present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their
applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required
under federal law.” She also notes some schools that require special needs
applicants to document their disabilities – which may or may not be illegal but
which is certainly contrary to the intent and spirit of the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act. Such policies will have the effect of discouraging
special needs students and, in some communities, minimizing the enrollment of
immigrant students. Another troubling, and possibly illegal, practice involves
elementary-level charters with attached, private pre-k schools that charge
substantial tuition – and the using of that pre-k school to funnel students
into the public charter and thereby create a wealthier student demographic
(see, e.g., Dreilinger, 2012; Ferguson, 2011; Ferguson & Royal, 2011).
Send Us Your Best: Conditions Placed on Enrollment
(2013) article also pointed to “One charter high school in [California that]
will not consider applicants with less than a 2.0 grade point average. Another
will only admit students who passed Algebra I in middle school with a grade of
B or better.” She also points to states that allow a charter school to give an
admissions preference to students based on a demonstration of interest in that
school’s theme or focus: “Some schools use that leeway to screen for students
who are ready for advanced math classes or have stellar standardized test
scores.” Other charter schools, including KIPP, require that students and their
families commit to longer school days and school hours. Many also require
so-called ‘sweat equity’ contracts from parents, whereby they commit to
contribute service to the school. As with conditions placed on applications,
these conditions of enrollment can work by directly turning away families as well
as by discouraging families perceived to be less desirable.
The Bum Steer
to these application and enrollment practices is the old practice of steering
away less desirable students (Fiore, et al., 2000). The typical scenario
involves the parent of a high-needs child who drops by the school to inquire
about enrolling and is told that opportunities for that child will be much
richer at the public school down the road. These are among the allegations in
the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit against the Recovery School District
in New Orleans (Mock, 2010).
Not In Service
noted above, a charter school may or may not have services designed to meet the
needs of a given group of higher-needs children. For instance, teachers with
TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) training or
certification may be unavailable. Similarly, a charter school may not have the
resources necessary to meet the special needs of a child with so-called
low-incidence disabilities. But even reading specialists, for instance, may be
unavailable. While a charter school may not, under the Individuals with
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), be legality entitled to reject a students
with special needs and his or her individualized education plan (IEP), pointing
out the unavailability of resources and services is often sufficient to do the
trick (Welner & Howe, 2005).
The Fitness Test: Counseling Out
of less successful students or those who are viewed as a poor fit may simply be
told that they should consider a different option. This is usually accomplished
through ongoing meetings with the charter schools’ teachers and administrators.
(Bobby isn’t responding well to instruction, getting along well with other
students, etc.
) In a school choice context, a reasonable way to address a
disappointing experience is to seek out a different school, and a nudge from
school staff can help move this process along.
Flunk or Leave: Grade Retention
such nudge can be provided by telling the student and parent that if the
student remains at the school, she will be retained in grade. Grade retention
is extensively used, for instance, at KIPP charter schools. One effect of such
policies is to rebuke less successful students and to suggest that those
students may do better elsewhere (and to inform them that they will have to go
elsewhere if they want to graduate on time).
Discipline and Punish
schools’ discipline policies generally differ from those of their nearby school
districts. Washington DC’s charter schools, for example, have much higher
expulsion rates than do district schools (Brown, 2013). The New York Times wrote in 2012 about a charter
school in Chicago that has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines
from students for infractions like “not looking a teacher in the eye” (Vevea,
2012). Through direct expulsion and through harsh discipline regimes, such
charter schools are able to maintain a more controlled school environment, but
one effect of doing so is the selective removal of students who are more
disruptive – or, in the case of the Chicago school, less able to afford the
Going Mobile (Or Not)

Low-income communities
across the country tend to have high rates of student mobility. Many students
exit and enter each year and – most disruptively for all – during the school
year. Neighborhood public schools generally have no power to limit this
mobility and must focus instead on minimizing the disruption. Charter schools,
however, can decide to enroll few or no new students during the year or in
higher grades. Researchers refer to this addition of new students as a choice
of whether or not to “backfill” the students charters lose through normal
attrition or through counseling out. A related issue is the common practice
among new charter schools of ‘feeding from below.’ To illustrate, imagine a new
charter authorized to serve grades k-8. Such a school would often open with
just grades k-2, and then each year would bring in a new kindergarten cohort
and extend up one year, to k-3, then k-4, and so on. This approach tends to
create stability and to screen out more transient students and families.

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