Conflicting Reports on CA Charter Admissions Violations, Any Number Is Too High

Too many charter schools are setting illegal admissions standards, whether that is 2%, as the California Charter Association reports  or 20% as the ACLU of SoCal and Public Advocates report (full disclosure my first legal gig was at Public Advocates).   Charter schools are public schools and need to have open admissions, so any number is too high.

The charter law promises open admissions to charters as the report states,

The state legislature made this principle clear in the California Charter Schools Act, which plainly requires charter schools to “admit all pupils who wish to attend.”1 In other words, except for limitations due to space, charter schools may not enact admissions requirements or other barriers to enrollment and must admit all students who apply, just as traditional public schools cannot turn away students.

The report outlined key types of policy violations, and provided a range of examples, where schools;

  • Deny enrollment to students who do not have strong grades or test scores.
  • Expel students who do not maintain strong grades or test scores.
  • Deny enrollment to students who do not meet a minimum level of English proficiency.
  • Select students based on onerous pre-enrollment requirements such as student or parent/guardian essays or interviews.
  • Discourage or preclude immigrant students from attending by requiring parents/guardians or students to provide Social Security numbers or other citizenship information before enrollment
  • Refuse to enroll students unless their parents/guardians volunteer or donate money to the school.

The California Charter Schools Association responded, agreeing that there were some problems to be fixed, but also noting some disagreements;

  • CCSA believes the types of policies identified in the report have different levels of urgency in terms of their impact on students. The report found only 22 schools (approximately 2% of California’s total 1,228 charter schools) have academic policies that exclude low academic performers.
  • We do not agree that all policies (e.g., essays, interviews or requests for student documentations) are per se discriminatory or exclusionary – there may be a perception of bias or discrimination, they may have been poorly drafted, but there is not necessarily evidence that they are intentional in their exclusion.
  • Nearly 30% of the schools (70 out of 252 schools) identified in this report are non-autonomous charter schools, meaning they function as part of a district and under its control.
  • Limiting the report to charter schools was a missed opportunity to provide the bigger context that all public schools, including district/traditional public schools, should be held to the standards that this report has applied to charter schools.

I think the answer on policies is somewhere in between, but I would also argue that even beyond policies, sometimes that actual practices of charters (and other schools) tend to exclude.  I published a piece covering this earlier in the week on my own experiences, Bad Apples in Charter Admissions and What We Can Do.  But I will just keep repeating, any number is too high, and I hope every charter goes home and checks its policies and trains its front line staff.

The stakes are huge here.  For charters to claim comparability to district schools, they need to have fair admission policies and serve basically the same students.  If not, its just not a fair comparison.

An Example in Alameda

Which brings me to my latest charter school discrimination story.  I was out at one of my middle schools, and got a complaint that students applying to a charter in Alameda were required to pass algebra in 8th grade.  I was looking forward to my-self righteous moment to call the school to blast them.

I looked up their website, sure enough, it was right there in black and white, beyond the lottery there was more

Additional Requirement:

Proficiency in Algebra: ASTI does not offer Algebra 1.  To be eligible for the lottery a student must have demonstrated proficiency in Algebra 1 through successful course completion (C- or better in a full year or full year equivalent Algebra 1 course).

 

Self-righteousness at its peak, I got ready to pick up the phone.  these fools are gonna get it, and then I saw they were a district school.

 

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Bad Apples in Charter Admissions and What We Can Do

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, 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 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.

These are exceptions to the rule, and a small minority of schools with a small minority of staff that 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 NY we created the first college preparatory school that catered to students with emerging mental health issues, Harlem’s first autism inclusion program, and several schools that re-engaged students who were out of school, through sports, careers, and authentic engagement.  In Oakland, the schools I worked with, and do, are from the community, serving our kids, and trying to serve all of them.

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.  However, as public schools, and 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,  students with big thick files.

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.  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 off the Rez, out of a very difficult and rural family situation, 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, and using admission testers, who would try to enroll more “diverse” learners at schools and record their treatment 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 (that whole common enrollment system Oakland was previously looking at would have been great here, but politics killed it), 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 publicized to 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 weight shed by bad ones.

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 2 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.