Charter School Lotteries – Why Most Families Don’t Even Apply

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Who gets to enroll in your school?


This question is at the heart of the charter school debate.


While traditional public schools have to accept any student who meets residency requirements, charter schools can be entirely more selective.


They don’t have to take just any student. They can pick and choose based on pretty much whatever criteria they want.


Despite the fact that charters are publicly funded and privately run, transparency requirements are so low in most states that regulators aren’t even allowed to check up on their enrollment practices.


It’s a situation rife with the potential for fraud and abuse with America’s most vulnerable students often being victimized and huge corporations raking in record profits.


Critics say that charter schools routinely accept only the easiest students to educate. They take those with the best academic records, without disciplinary problems or special education needs. This allows them to spend less money to run their schools and claim all their students are doing well because of artificially inflated test scores.
But when critics level such charges against the charter school industry, the most common reply is an appeal to charter school lotteries.


When these privatized schools get more applications than they have seats, they often resort to a lottery to determine which students get to enroll.


The infamous propaganda movie “Waiting for Superman” had a much quoted scene where poor children held onto their lottery tickets as they hoped and prayed to be saved from a “failing public school.”


Advocates claim this is what makes charters fair: Students get in by pure chance.


But it’s not true.


More often than not, whenever enrollment data is available, it shows that charter administrators are, in fact, selective.


Take BASIS School Inc., a charter chain with 18 schools in Arizona, three in Texas and one in Washington D.C. The chain’s schools in Tucson and Scottsdale are highly ranked on Newsweek’s “America’s Most Challenging High Schools” list, and on the Best High Schools list of U.S. News & World Report.


However, their enrollment figures show them to be out-and-out cherry pickers.


They typically over-enroll Asian-American students and under enroll Latinos. They also enroll a much lower proportion of special education students than the state average and – shockingly – have zero English Language Learners.


Despite corporate accolades, this is not a successful model of public education. It is prejudicial, exclusionary and entirely the goal of for-profit educational institutions everywhere.


But besides outright corruption from charter administrators, there are other factors that suppress the neediest students from even applying to charter schools.


In short, they don’t want to go to these types of schools. They can’t afford losing the services and amenities they would typically receive at traditional public schools. They can’t afford the extra out-of-pocket costs charters demand.


Frankly, many charter schools are set up for middle class or wealthier students. Even if accepted, the poor would get fewer services and be forced to pay more than they could afford.


1) They Can’t Afford Uniforms


Many charter schools require students to wear uniforms. Most traditional public schools do not. Therefore, even though your local charter school is funded by tax dollars, it can be a hefty financial burden to attend.


How much more does it cost? That depends. Each charter school has different requirements.


For instance, in the New Orleans Parents’ Guide, the cost for a single uniform is estimated at more than $70. That’s at least $350 for a week’s worth of clothes. However, many estimates I’ve seen have been much higher.


Many charters require students to wear blazers – something a traditional public school student wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. These are pretty expensive items. They can cost anywhere from $80-$250 each.


Moreover, some charters, like most in the KIPP network, require everyday items like socks and shirts to contain an embroidered school logo. That’s at least an additional $10-15 per item.


For impoverished parents who routinely shop at local thrift stores or the Salvation Army, charter school uniforms can put them out of reach.


To be fair, about 19% of traditional public schools also require uniforms. However, they are typically much less expensive. In fact, they rarely amount to more than requiring clothing to be of a wide variety of colors and/or styles.


And if parents can’t afford the extra cost, traditional districts are required to either forgo the requirement or help parents meet it. They cannot deny children an education based on their parents inability to buy uniforms. Charter schools, on the other hand, can.


2) They Need Special Education Programs



Charter schools are rarely – if ever – known for their special education programs. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, are renowned for meeting the needs of diverse students with various abilities. If your child has special needs, going to a charter school simply may not be an option.


One reason for this is the basic structure of each type of institution. Traditional public schools are usually much bigger than charter schools. As a result, they can pool their resources to better meet special students needs.


At charter schools nationally, disabled students represent only about 7-8% of all students enrolled. At traditional public schools, they average a little more than 11%, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis of Department of Education data. So traditional public schools already have the staff, infrastructure and experience to help these children. Moreover, it would be cost prohibitive for charters to add them, especially when they’re designed specifically to make a profit.


Perhaps more troubling is this: charter schools rarely identify students as having special needs. Students who would get extra help and services in a traditional public school setting, do without in charter schools. In fact, parents who feel their children’s needs aren’t being met at charters, often disenroll them and place them back in their traditional public school for the extra help.


Parents with students who have learning disabilities or extra needs simply can’t afford letting their children languish in a privatized school setting that may well ignore their child’s individual needs.


3) They Need Free/Reduced Breakfast and Lunches


Though the state and federal government pay for free or reduced breakfast or lunch programs, charter schools often don’t offer them. Traditional public schools do. It’s that simple. If you’re having trouble feeding your children, sending them to a charter school can mean letting them go hungry.


Take Arizona. Statewide, more than 47% of all students receive free or reduced-priced lunch. However, charter schools in the BASIS network have none.  This doesn’t mean none of their students qualify. Clearly some of them do. The BASIS chain has chosen not to participate.


Why? Perhaps it’s to keep away students who have greater needs.


If so, it’s working.


Even when charters don’t actively weed out hard to teach students, they can set things up to make them less likely to apply.


4) They Need Busing To-And-From School


Often students don’t live within walking distance of their school. Traditional public schools routinely provide busing. Charter schools often do not. If you can drive your child to-and-from school, this is not an issue. If you’re poor and don’t have your own means of transportation, this is an added burden.


And if you think this is only a feature of the most fly-by-night charters, think again. The BASIS network – again, which includes some of the highest rated charters in the country – does not provide busing.


Traditional public schools are often at the heart of the community. They spring up around community centers, parks, and social gathering places. Charter schools are more often located at new or repurposed sites that can be miles away from the people they serve.


When the traditional public school offers a free ride to-and-from school, it can be an insurmountable burden to go to a charter where you have to find another way to get there. Parents who are working multiple jobs and/or the night shift may find it impossible to take their kids to the local charter. But perhaps this is exactly why charters aren’t offering busing in the first place. They don’t want these children.


5) They Don’t Have Time and/or Money For Extra Charter Demands


Charter schools demand an awful lot from parents. Traditional public schools do not. While children often benefit from involved parents, that’s not always possible. It’s unfair to require parental involvement as a prerequisite of enrollment.


Many charter schools require parents to volunteer at the school for so many hours a week. They often require “suggested” donations for extra services and for parents to buy books, supplies, or to pay an additional fee for extra curricular activities that would be provided for free at traditional public schools.


The BASIS network, for instance, requests that families contribute at least $1,500 a year per child to the school to fund its teacher bonus program. Families are also required to pay a $300 security deposit, purchase books, and pay for activities that would be free if the student attended a public school.


This is simply out of reach for the most disadvantaged students. Their parents are out of work or working multiple jobs to support them. They can’t volunteer at the school when they have to serve a shift at WalMart. They can’t afford the additional costs.


So, yes, charters often select against the poorest and neediest students when deciding whom to enroll.


However, even when they conduct fair lotteries to determine enrollment, they often set things up to discourage the neediest families from even applying in the first place.


NOTE: Special thanks to Priscilla Sanstead on this article.

44 thoughts on “Charter School Lotteries – Why Most Families Don’t Even Apply

  1. Excellent piece – I’d add that some charters only enroll kids in certain grades and don’t backfill so if a family misses the window, they can never get in.

    Another issue is the strict disciplinary code in charters, which disadvantages kids who are not “conformists” and for whatever reason, unable to sit still and be quiet and obedient for long stretches. Charter schools often hold parents accountable for this, summoning them for early pick up, or are much quicker to suspend or counsel these kids out of the school.

    Also there don’t seem to be any requirements for charter schools to notify ALL local families about their lotteries. This means they can conceivably send postcards only to families from a preferred list based on credit score or some other criteria.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on BLOGGYWOCKY and commented:
    And yet, we have billionaires like the Gates, the Waltons, Broad, etc, etc, spending a whole lot of their bucks promoting charter schools. Even though these people know nothing about education, and they send their kids to exclusive private schools.
    And also nut to mention that we have a Secretary of “Education” who goes even farther than this and wants every state and school district to give voucher money to parents who want to send their kids to a private school, inluding religious private schools.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am curious about your view of qualified admission public school programs and schools. These programs and schools are on the extreme end of limiting school admissions, explicitly offering admission to only those students who do extremely well on standardized exams.

    Should these schools be considered “public” schools?


    • What is your view, Teaching Economist? Do you think we should get rid of these magnets schools? Make the argument. I’d love to hear it. Explain to me why they are the same and why they both need to go. Or explain why one is alright and the other is okay. Or why both are a-ok and segregation causes no problems in your book. These seem to be the three options or am I overlooking something?


      • Steven,

        I am comfortable with specialized schools, both charter and magnet. I think the main advantage of choice schools like these are that they can provide a more differentiated education than traditional public schools, so I would keep both.

        You state that “traditional public schools have to accept any student who meets residency requirements, charter schools can be entirely more selective” and that this is “at the heart of the charter debate”. The qualified admission schools and programs do not come close to accepting “any student who meets residency requirements”. If selectivity is a reason to criticize schools, should we not have a debate about the types of schools that explicitly use standardized test scores to determine admission before we talk about the types of schools that might use more subtle methods to skew admission?


      • Teaching economist, we’ve been through this before. I refer you to our many, many other conversations on it. I thought you might have something new to offer. I, of course, am disturbed by your willingness to accept school segregation. In 2017, I should not have to explain to you why this is wrong. Unfortunately Brown vs Board does not contain much of value for too many who wish to reform education. I consider it a moral failing of the opposition. If more of us upheld the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, it would be a better world.


    • TeachingEconomist, the main difference is that public school systems offer only a limited number of specialized schools requiring entrance exams while the vast majority of their schools are designed to meet the needs of all children. So they end up serving ALL students, regardless of their performance level.

      Charter school networks filter out disabled, low-performing or disruptive students as detailed above, WITHOUT offering capacity for the high need students, and thus, making it more difficult for the public schools who pick up their slack.

      As an example, the NYC DOE has about 1,700 schools, but only eight admit students based on a specialized exam in academics. At .004%, it’s clear that NYC’s specialized academic schools are a drop in the bucket. Do you think charters should continue to cherrypick students?


  4. The article is spot on. I see the practice from the perspective as a parent and a public school teacher. My child was a student at a selective public school that chartered. I called it the “best private public school”. I wanted the best educational environment for my child and luckily his intellect gave him that opportunity. As a public school teacher I have first hand experience with open enrollment and everything that comes with it. No it’s not equitable and it doesn’t appear that it will change.


  5. Our local charters are almost entirely white and middle-class. Meanwhile, many of our public schools serve the 80-98% who need free or reduced lunch.

    Yet superficial liberals don’t see how it’s undemocratic and segregationist to remove inspiring programs from public schools and put them into separate charters instead.

    They are liberals in name only.


  6. […] Moreover, public schools offer a much expanded range of services for your children than privatized schools. Special education and gifted programs are first rate at public schools while often intermittent or nonexistent at privatized schools. And the requirements put on parents at public schools are much lower – less restrictive dress codes, fewer demands on parents’ time and they take a greater responsibility for your children. […]


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