Yes, some charter schools do pick their students. It’s not a myth.

This piece, which notes that at least one charter network conceded doing it, was written by Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In a nutshell, Mathews contends that charters can’t pick their students, since applicants to over-enrolled schools are almost always chosen via lotteries. But the piece fails to address the truth that such lotteries involve just one small part of the enrollment process.

Charter schools, like other businesses, have many different models for influencing the composition of their customers, and these approaches become more dominant (and creative) as the incentives to shape clientele become greater.

For instance, one model can be thought of as “the nightclub” — with bouncers at the door (and inside), deciding who gets in and who stays in. Another model is the restaurant, with deliberate choices about location, marketing, price and menu — so that the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel seeks and finds very different customers than does McDonalds. The model for a law firm has some of these same elements, but clients are also shaped by the services offered by the firm. If the firm’s lawyers specialize in bankruptcy, they will direct a potential client to a different firm if the person is seeking representation on a criminal matter.

With my colleague Wagma Mommandi, I have researched charter-school access policies and found upward of a dozen different ways that these schools can and do shape their enrollment. While few charter schools have the equivalent of bouncers at the door, many more have bouncers inside the schools (e.g., push-out discipline policies) or use other approaches to shape their enrollment.

We wrote about these approaches in a book chapter in “Choosing Charters,” an excellent edited book (our chapter plus 14 others by top charter-school researchers) that should be required reading for anyone engaged with charter-school policy issues. The chapter that I wrote with Wagma is titled, “Shaping Charter Enrollment and Access,” and is available in full online free through Google Books.

The chapter separates the enrollment-shaping approaches into three time periods: pre-enrollment, during enrollment and after enrollment. In the pre-enrollment stage, charters shape access through choices about location, description, design and marketing. These are all easy to observe, yet we often don’t notice their role in determining which students are enrolled.

We also see charters engaging in a wide variety of creative practices that influence who successfully navigates enrollment. We call these (a) steering, (b) denial of services, (c) conditions placed on enrollment, (d) required volunteerism, and (e) conditions in applications.

To get a feel for these hurdles, imagine yourself as the parent of a 11-year-old boy with a disability manifesting as reduced control over behavior and learning attention. You want to enroll your son in a new middle school. You’ve done your research and found a nearby charter school that interests you.

First, you visit the school’s website and read, “Success at this school requires self-discipline and strong executive functioning by our students. All students are required to follow strict behavioral codes.” In the admissions section, you see something about all students being required to take admissions tests or placement exams. You also specifically read the section on special education and see, “Some students with special needs can be successful at this school, but we lack the capacity to serve students with severe disabilities, and our staffing is limited.”

When you finally do visit the school (having to take sick time for that morning at work), the counselor you speak with seems concerned that your son wouldn’t “fit,” and she recommends “the excellent public school just blocks away, with very strong special education services.” Finally, she mentions that all parents are expected to help the school out by volunteering at least 30 hours each school year.

Notwithstanding all these obstacles, you may still decide to apply to this school. (I daresay that many of us would not.) If you did apply, and if the school had more applications than available seats, this is where a lottery would enter the process. But does the lottery mean that the school has not engaged in cherry-picking? For me, the question is best posed as: Has the school taken steps to shape its enrollment in ways that discourage students like your son?

Setting aside the specific quotes, the above are all examples of actual enrollment-stage practices. The piece from Mathews, in fact, notes two additional examples:

A school in Hemet, Calif. said that to apply as a sophomore a student “must be earning an ‘A’ or ‘B’ in both Geometry and Biology.” A school in Redlands said “only students who show steady academic progress … will be eligible for enrollment.”

Yet, because California has tried to legally crack down on these practices, and because some of these schools have themselves stated that they are changing their practices, Mathews seems unconcerned about the continued existence of such practices in California or elsewhere.

In any case, even after a student is admitted, some charters continue to control access by avoiding or pushing out those deemed less desirable. The most well-known example of this is the “Got to Go” list generated by a Success Academy charter school in Brooklyn. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. In our chapter, Wagma and I identify five post-enrollment practices: (a) counseling out, (b) grade retention, (c) charges and fees, (d) discipline, and (e) not backfilling student attrition.

Putting your parent hat back on, imagine you’ve successfully enrolled your son in the hypothetical charter school discussed above. By the end of the first year at this middle school, you have been called to pick up your son nine times because he has been suspended after engaging in disruptive behavior in violation of the school’s strict disciplinary code. (Pursuant to the federal Individual With Disabilities Education Act, the school is supposed to conduct a “manifestation determination” to ensure that the behavior is not a result of the disability and to determine if the school is appropriately implementing the Individualized Education Program. Quite often the school does not do this.)

The school’s counselor has also told you that your son’s academics are suffering and that if he stays at the school the following year, he’ll have to repeat the grade. She then reminds you of that excellent public school just blocks away. Meanwhile, it turns out the charter school also levies fines against students for disciplinary infractions, and your son has racked up more than $200. Ultimately, you decide to enroll in that neighborhood public school.

The backfilling issue noted above as item (e” involves what the charter school does after you leave. Neighborhood public schools are sometimes overcrowded since they enroll new students notwithstanding ideal capacity. But charter schools are not required to do so; they instead implement a variety of enrollment policies.

Some charters adopt a version of the public-school approach, enrolling students whenever they apply — even midyear — as long as there are seats available. Others will take in new students if there are seats available, but only during the normal admissions cycle — so that the new students begin in the fall along with the school’s continuing students. Finally, others will only take in new students at entry grades (e.g., ninth grade for a high school). These more restrictive policies have implications for who enrolls and the impact of that enrollment. A charter school’s refusal to backfill an open seat allows the charter to avoid midyear disruption and avoid more transient students.

Consider here the comment made by Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute, a fervent advocate of charter schools. In discussing the strict discipline used by some charter schools, he acknowledged that these policies shape enrollment. In fact, he welcomed this sorting of families as “a feature, not a bug,” since some parents can thereby seek out the desired environment (e.g., strict discipline) for their children.

Ultimately, I read Mathews as saying the same thing. He’s not saying, as his title states, that cherry-picking by charters is a myth, but rather that cherry-picking is okay — or even desirable — if done in ways that are not too heavy-handed. He writes, “The most powerful influence on who goes to certain charters is not admission rules but the character of each school. Those that set academic standards very high draw more applications from parents who want that.”

This may be true. The school’s design may be the most powerful factor among the 14 that Wagma and I identified. If so, however, the core problem remains for those of us who are concerned when children’s opportunities to learn are further stratified on the basis of their parents’ efficacy in working the system.

In fact, whichever approaches for controlling access are most common, the key point is that there are many powerful ways that charters can and do shape their enrollment. Some can choose to call this something other than “cherry-picking” if they like — saving that term only for the bouncer-at-the-door. But the end result is the same, and it has very real implications for how charter schools fit within our educational system. Charter advocates insist that these are “public charter schools,” but their publicness is undermined every time they evade their responsibility to serve all families in their communities.

This is important because, notwithstanding the many scandalous examples of corrupt charter-school operators, a given charter school may be beneficial for any given student.

The National Education Policy Center, of which I am director, has a Schools of Opportunity recognition project that has lauded the practices of several charter schools as exemplars that other schools can and should follow. Other charter schools, such as the Strive network of schools in Denver, have acknowledged past access-limiting practices and have worked on reforms that increase access. In short, access concerns should be shared by all — supporters and skeptics.

Accordingly, let’s momentarily set aside the question of whether charter school reform is, as a whole, a wise and beneficial policy, and let’s ask whether the rules create the right incentives for charter schools to serve the public.

Reform efforts such as those at the Strive charters are swimming upstream, pushing back against incentives to shape access in ways that favor students who are relatively inexpensive, non-disruptive, and academically successful. While we can applaud such efforts, we cannot expect them to become widespread until the incentives themselves are changed.

Wagma and I continued to work on our access study and developed it into a book called “Controlled Access” that will be published by Teachers College Press in the fall. While we and others cannot quantify the frequency of each practice, the book provides a wealth of specifics that should convince even skeptics such as Mathews that charter schools are incentivized to use access-shaping policies and that they have many such policies to choose from.

That’s one type of “choice” that we should all agree to limit.

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