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.

Randi and Lily, For the Good of Our Unions, Please Step Down. You Are a Distraction


Dear Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia:

Unions are facing hard times.

We are under attack by the new fascist wing of the Republican party.

So-called “right to work” laws are being drafted at the national level to strip us of our rights and transform us into the factory slaves of The Gilded Age. New court challenges at the state and federal level could make it next to impossible to collect dues without allowing countless free riders. And in the mass media criticism of teacher tenure is mounting despite widespread ignorance of what it even means.

More than ever we need to be united in our efforts to fight the forces of regression and tyranny. We need each other to protect our public schools and our students from those who would do them harm. But the biggest obstacle to doing that isn’t Donald Trump. Nor is it Mike Pence, Steve Bannon or even Betsy DeVos.

It is you. Both of you.

Frankly, as Presidents of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), you have become a distraction.

When DeVos was blocked by protesters from entering a Washington, D.C., school this week, Randi actually took her side. She tweeted:


“Just heard a protester blocked & almost knocked Secy @BetsyDeVos down at Jefferson.We don’t condone such acts.We want her to go to pub schls.”

How dare you dictate to protesters what “we” want!?

This action may not have been something you, personally, condone. But DeVos just got away with purchasing her position as U.S. Secretary of Education. She and her billionaire family paid off mostly Republican lawmakers to the tune of $200 million allowing her to become the titular head of our nation’s public schools. This despite having never attended a public school, refusing to protect special education students, refusing to hold charter and voucher schools to the same standards, even refusing to keep guns out of our children’s classrooms! Well, Betsy, your money may buy you the title, but it buys you zero respect!

Randi, your statement just goes to show how tone deaf you and Lily are to the spirit of the rank and file.

We are not somewhat distressed at what is happening to our schools and our profession. We are enraged! We are taking to the streets! We are occupying our lawmakers offices and marching through community thoroughfares! And we aren’t throwing shade on other protesters behind the safety of Twitter.

For many of us, you both represent everything wrong with unionism. We are a people powered movement. We get our strength from the grassroots up, but you both try to rule from the top down.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early endorsements by both unions of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Neither one of you made an honest effort to gauge member opinions on these endorsements before going ahead. You thought you knew better. You pushed through these endorsements despite a strong vein of support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders was much more in-line with our needs and values. And he had much more support among progressives and independents. He had a much better chance of winning! Meanwhile, Clinton was just another neoliberal in a long line of neoliberals like President Barack Obama who would offer us only the back of their hands.

You wanted a seat at the table, and you didn’t mind how much it would cost the rest of us.

Lily, when you took the reins of the NEA in 2014, you famously said “We are what Democracy looks like.” I was never more proud of my union than at that moment. But that pride has turned to ashes in my mouth.

Many of us will never forgive either of you for the results of this election. We blame you for Trump.

Had you not dictated to us that we must support Clinton, had you supported a candidate with a real chance of wining, there is little doubt that we could have defeated the clown currently in the Oval Office. Moreover, under a President Sanders we would have had a real chance at a progressive future that benefits everyone – $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, sanctuary cities, justice reforms, fair trade, free college tuition.

Trump did not win alone. Unwittingly, you were his biggest supporters. It was your hubris – along with that of corporate Democrats deaf to the voices of their base – that gave us these next four years. And none of you have learned your lesson.

Lily, your three-year term is up this year. Randi, your two-year term is up in summer 2018.

We can wait you out if we must. But do what’s best for the people you claim to represent. Step down now.

Otherwise, you can look for opposition in our Representative Assemblies.

Let me be clear. I don’t think either of you have broken any by-laws. I don’t think there is evidence for impeachment (if our by-laws even allow it). But members could easily make a motion from the floor for a vote of no confidence.

Support may already be mounting for such positions at the Region level. It could go to the State House of Delegates as a New Business Item and get a majority vote from the floor. Or perhaps at our next Representative Assembly, someone will just make a motion.

I don’t know if it would pass. But I know that this division among us is holding us back from being the force we can be. I know that it has stopped many of us from talking about how we fight external forces, because we are instead focused on enemies from within.

We want to transform our unions. We no longer want to focus solely on collective bargaining. We want to focus on social justice and the needs of our students and communities. To be sure, our labor rights are essential to this fight, but they cannot be everything nor can we be willing to give up on the needs of our students if the powers that be will only leave our salaries and benefits intact.

We want a union that is more at home in the streets than in the boardroom. We want leaders who mobilize us to fight not tell us what to think. We need leaders that listen to us – not the other way around.

As a classroom teacher and education activist, I make this request in no official capacity for any of the various groups to which I belong. I ask as merely another member of the NEA. I have no affiliation with the AFT.

Moreover, I have nothing personal against either of you. We met briefly at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago two years ago. You were both congenial and inspiring. It may not seem like it now, but I hold tremendous respect for both of you. I think in your own ways you have accomplished much that benefits our members.

But the time has come to step down. You believe in accountability. Hold yourselves accountable.

Put the strength of our unions first. Let it no longer be about you. Let it be about us.

Here’s hoping you’ll do the right thing.


Steven Singer

NEA and PSEA member

P.S. – If any NEA or AFT member reads this open letter and agrees with the sentiments expressed here, please add your name and union affiliation in a comment on my blog.

Standardized Dress – School Uniforms and Conformity as Social Norm


It was just a normal Monday. Two emotionally disturbed students chased each other into my classroom playing keep away with each others’ belongings.

I stopped them, reprimanded them and sent them to opposite corners of the room. Meanwhile the rest of the class hadn’t bothered to begin their warmup activity. I explained the assignment and got them back on track.

Finally, a girl sitting in the front row raised her hand and offered a solution to the problem on the board.

We were back in business and learning could continue.

At the end of class, an administrator stormed in. There was an urgent problem that needed solving immediately.

It wasn’t that the emotionally disturbed students were misplaced in the regular education setting. It wasn’t that the other students had needed redirection. It was the girl in the front row.

She was wearing a pink shirt!

When board members enact a school uniform policy – as was just accomplished at my district – they turn every educator in the building into the fashion police.

Individualized instruction, classroom management, content knowledge – all become secondary to the driving force of our schools: who isn’t conforming to the norm?

When did this become our educational philosophy? We should be doing just the opposite.

Schools should be engines of self-discovery and self-expression. In a world of stifling poverty and dangers from within and without, our schools should be places where kids can be themselves. We should be providing them safe places to learn who that is and what their relationship is to the rest of the world.

Instead, we standardize the curriculum with test prep and Common Core. We standardize their assessments with days of fill-in-the-bubble state-mandated testing and pretesting and post-testing.

To be fair, much of this is forced on us from the state and federal government. But now when your local school directors get an opportunity to make a rare decision about how to run their own community schools, they decide to standardize student dress!? They think having everyone look the same in drab colors and similar outfits is going to improve the situation!?

No! It simply continues the trend of turning our children into prisoners and turning our teachers into their wardens.

Case-in-point: my classroom is very cold. Even in summer the air conditioning blows out too much frigid air, and the maintenance department never seems able to adjust it properly.

I’ve almost given up complaining to administrators. After a few introductory attempts, I move on to things I can actually control.

In the past, I’ve simply told my students to bring a jacket. Most of them end up bringing a hoodie, but this year that’s against the dress code. They can wear a certain kind of plain sweatshirt or sweater, but they can’t wear one with a hood.

The result is a class of shivering children many of whom still try gamely to learn. I must admit, even standing there, myself, wearing a suit jacket, I go numb after a while.

So I took pity on my class and allowed them to discretely bring hoodies into class if that was all they had available. Almost immediately after the first student donned the verboten clothing, an administrator looked into my room and saw it. She pulled the student into the hall yelling and screaming that this was the second time the child had been seen wearing a hoodie, and disciplinary action would be taken.

The child turned to me with lost, helpless eyes before I spoke up and took the blame. He got off with a warning and shivered through the rest of my lesson.

Is this really the best use of our educational resources? We have real problems – such as dealing with the consequences of our “lowest responsible bidder” air conditioning service. But instead of tackling any of that, we’re pounding children into submission for a school uniform policy that doesn’t make any sense.

What lesson does it teach? Hoodies are evil? Wearing pink or – God help you! – navy blue will ruin your life!?

No. You must be the same as everyone else or you will be punished for being different.

This is what happens when school directors glance at the mountain of insurmountable problems they’ve volunteered to correct. But instead of solving any of them, they opt for a measure that solves nothing but looks good on paper – the newspaper, specifically.

A school uniform policy allows them to talk tough. We’re taking a strong stance against misbehavior by forcing student to dress the same way. We won’t put up with shenanigans at our school like gangs, violence and freedom of expression!

It’s ludicrous.

Do uniforms reduce violence and increase positive behaviors? There is no proof that they do. In every study that claims to prove the efficacy of uniforms for positive behaviors, districts made additional rule and administrative changes to the school environment at the same time. There is no way to isolate uniforms as the one factor among many that caused better behaviors.

What’s worse, there are long-standing, well respected studies that go further and conclude that uniforms are – at best – ineffective and – at worst – actually INCREASE negative behaviors.

Take this 1998 statistical study produced by the University of Notre Dame‘s Sociology Department that studied 10th grade students. Researchers showed that uniforms had no direct effect on “substance abuse, behavioral problems or attendance.” In fact, uniforms actually had a negative effect on student achievements for those students who previously considered themselves ‘pro-school’.

Researchers concluded:

“Student uniform use was not significantly correlated with any of the school commitment variables such as absenteeism, behavior, or substance use (drugs). In addition, students wearing uniforms did not appear to have any significantly different academic preparedness, proschool attitudes, or peer group structures with proschool attitudes than other students.”

What about academics? Supporters claim uniforms will boost academic achievement by removing distractions to learning.

It’s a curious claim to make.

Statistics show that mandatory school uniforms actually work AGAINST learning. States that require uniforms rank at the bottom for academic achievement. States without mandatory school uniforms rank at the top.

This is why school districts that adopt mandatory school uniforms often see a drop in property values. Mandatory uniforms are a hallmark of failing schools.

Consider what kinds of schools require uniforms. Hint: it’s not the rich suburban ones. It’s the poverty-stricken inner city ones. Specifically, 47% of high-poverty schools reported requiring school uniforms. While only 6% of low poverty schools did the same, according to the US Department of Education.

The National Center for Educational Statistics surveyed both primary and secondary school students from 1988 to 2004. Their conclusion: “Once I control for a number of factors, including race, sex and socioeconomic status… there is little evidence that school uniforms have an impact on student outcomes.”

In short, it’s time to stop reform for reform’s sake. We need to stop reaching for easy answers. Our children deserve better.

We need to give up this strange notion that in the land of the free, the home of the brave, the best ideal we can drum up for our schools is everyone marching in line, wearing the same clothing, thinking the same thoughts. That’s not the American dream. That’s the Communist one!

We’ve got to be okay with difference. In fact, we need to encourage it. Yes, there are limits, but they should be placed back as far as possible.

John Mason wrote, “You were born an original. Don’t die a copy.” Let’s not force our children into a mold.

Let’s guide them, nurture them to become independent thinkers who sometimes shock us with their originality.

Let our decisions today be worthy of the adults they may one day become.

Let them be free.