Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

March 22, 2009


Sharon Higgins and Caroline Grannan, Education Change - Charter schools get overwhelmingly positive press and make a lot of claims about their success. But actually, numerous studies confirm that their achievement is indistinguishable from that of traditional public schools. Some are very successful, some are troubled and struggling, and the rest are somewhere in between - just like traditional public schools.

One of the boasts by their proponents is that charter schools enroll "the poorest of the poor." . . . The truth is that charter schools may enroll some very low-income students, but they do not enroll the very troubled, high-need, at-risk students who pose the greatest challenge to public education. (There are some specialty charter schools specifically for juvenile offenders or other defined groups; we are not referring to that type but to general education charter schools.)

Enrollment at all charter schools is, by law, entirely by request. No student is assigned to a charter school by default. That means "self-selection" occurs at all of them, inherently, by definition.

That is, parents who care about their kids' education enough to make the effort to learn about and request a school are the ones whose kids attend charter schools. Parents who don't have it together to pay attention, care, or take action to try to improve their kids' education do not choose charter schools. Thus their kids -- obviously likely to be the most challenged and challenging -- are left in the traditional public schools. . .

Charter advocates' usual response to this explanation is to deny that there is such a thing as families that are less motivated and stable. They claim that "all parents care enough." All we can say is that those people need to get out more.

And what about the question of whether charter schools actively pick and choose their students? Charter schools are supposed to admit everyone and choose by lottery if they have more applications than seats. However, does anyone believe that there are regulators somehow watching over the entire enrollment process, from receipt of the applications to the implementation of a lottery, if any?

If a charter school chooses to conduct itself this way, it is free as a bird to "not have space" for applicants who appear undesirable for whatever reason. It's amply documented that charter schools all over the country, overall, dramatically underserve special education students, for example.

Charter advocates will counter that traditional public schools can manage to not enroll or to "counsel out" a challenging student too. Sure, but that student is still the responsibility of the public school district, and will land in another school run by a colleague of the administrator who managed to deny/remove the student. If a charter school contrives to not enroll or get rid of a challenging student, it never has to set eyes on or give a thought to that student again.

San Francisco's most successful charter school, a high school, requires a 9-page enrollment application -- including transcripts; teacher recommendations; an essay; and signed commitments to behavior, academic effort, volunteering and so forth by the student and parent. Then the administrators claim to put all the applicants in a "blind lottery." It strikes us as exceptionally naive to believe those applicants aren't being screened.


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