Some time ago, at a charter school near you, I went to enroll a foster child, let’s call her ”Keasha”. She needed a good school, that was smaller and more personalized. Brushing aside my lack of legal authority, we asked the receptionist for an application. She explained that the school may not have any spots, described the school culture in fairly negative terms, underemphasizing the clubs and afterschool activities, and noting 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,” a series of math problems. An “admission test” or other preconditions to enrollment in 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 spots. Full disclosure, I am a lawyer and reviewed most of this charter years back, including admissions, and I know there is no fracking admissions test, and as a fairly empowered Black man, I have learned it’s best to just listen sometimes, without betraying my credentials, and see how far people will go.
Keasha answers, they are graded, she does well, and then is offered a spot for admission. Rather than blasting the receptionist, I contacted and met with Board chair, who is a colleague. He explained, it was not an “admissions test” but one to determine placement, and the school, being small, offered only two options in terms of 9th grade math. He earnestly apologized and said he would push training for the leadership and the front line staff on these areas.
I personally felt like there was also 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.
I have worked with charter schools for over two decades, and I do see the subtle and not so subtle ways that schools can and sometimes do manipulate the student bodies coming in to increase the test scores coming out, or to more generally serve “their kids.” This is not the only “admission” test story out there, alongside subtle and not so subtle counseling out of students who may be more challenging.
Furthermore, seemingly neutral rules can also 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 or limited distribution.; and “zero tolerance” or “no excuses” disciplinary policies, where students are given little leeway and staff are full of excuses why they can only serve the “good” kids.
I have seen schools suspend or threaten to expel students for being absent too much, homeless students rack up uniform policy violations, and other school rules that have the effect of pushing more (perceived) challenging students out. These students are almost never expelled; instead they are threatened with continuing punishments and potential expulsion, so the parent withdraws them, interrupting their academic year, and enrolling them mid-year when better options are likely full.
I wholeheartedly believe that these are exceptions to the rule, and a small minority of schools with a small minority of staff who act in ways that subtly or not so subtly discriminate. The vast majority of charters are really working to meet and serve the needs of underserved students. In New York we created the first college preparatory school that catered to students with emerging mental health issues; in Oakland the American Indian Charter School was created to uniquely meet the needs of, at that time, the lowest achieving population in Oakland; Oakland Charter Academy, was created in the Jingletown community to meet immigrant family needs that were not being met by the district, and the Reset Foundation is currently working on a charter for young men re-entering the community from juvenile facilities.
The vast, vast majority of charters are not started for the money or the glory, but to help kids. And many charters are showing extraordinary results with underserved students. But if charters claim to be public schools, and most all of the schools I have worked with deliberately tried to serve high needs populations, we all really do have to work to serve the public. And that means calling out bad apples.
This is part of a larger systemic issue where schools often choose students while we imagine students choosing schools. It was entirely predictable which students the local district schools would recommend apply to our charters, sometimes based on a perceived match, but often on a desire to push out more difficult or failing students—those with big thick files. I once had a conversation with a district principal about one of our students who was caught lighting a fire in the bathroom; he told me the student would have automatically been charged with the criminal offense of arson and expelled. Our school charged him with the relatively minor offenses of possession of contraband and putting others at risk. He got a couple of days of suspension and some counseling.
If we are honest, the game has always been rigged, with zip codes and family wealth being pretty directly correlated with educational opportunities. Anyone who looks can see the vast disparities in the district schools, and between districts, often based on where students physically can afford to live. If you don’t believe me, go from the deep East Oakland or West Oakland schools to Piedmont, just a few miles, but a world of difference when it comes to its public schools. Or drive from the Flatlands up through the Hills and watch the housing prices rise alongside quality school options.
In charters, the increased flexibility and autonomy can be used for good or nefarious purposes, and sometimes the line is actually fairly grey. I remember expanding our class size to add a sibling of a current student who had just moved out of a very difficult and rural family situation, and who would struggle in a larger District middle school. I have also heard school leaders say how kids looked like “trouble” and were told there was no room, when there was.
We need to stop the straight-up discrimination. In employment discrimination, one of the best ways to ferret out bad actors is using “testers” diverse job applicants with similar credentials applying for the same job. We should use “admission testers”, who would try to enroll more “diverse” learners at schools and record their treatment. This would be immensely helpful as it is in the employment context. The trickier issues are around schools that may liberally push out the more challenging students, often based on completely legal and public school policies that parents technically agree to when they enroll their student, even if they never read them or had them explained. For these situations, charter authorizers should require transparent tracking and publication of attrition rates, AND schools with disproportionate rates would suffer a financial penalty that would go to the school where the student was received. And overall, we need to really track and publicize data for all the schools around enrollment, attrition, discipline, and expulsion, and this data should be shared with parents as they make their choices.
While these measures would not solve every problem, it would catch the worst offenders, shine light on abuses, and also reset the financial incentives, which right now can be to push more challenging students down the line, with good actors increasingly carrying the responsibility shed by bad ones.
There is a viewpoint expressed mostly behind closed doors, sometimes with a complicit authorizer in the room, that the so-called “charter movement” should admit no fault around serving all students. That making any admission about selective or discriminatory enrollment practices changes the narrative to a defensive one, and we are better just playing offense. Were this football, I probably still wouldn’t agree, but it’s not a game. And until we engage this debate as a cooperative struggle rather than a rhetorical death match, we really can’t claim to be a public school movement.
I sardonically joke during trainings (my day job is partially incubating charter schools and working with schools on improvement planning), that I can give school leaders the two-step secret to the high test score performance: recruit high achievers and kick out the “bad” kids. Unfortunately, there is truth underlying the joke, which echoes across all sectors of American education. And while some laugh at the joke, others frown, and a third group is taking notes.