Was Reuters ‘Selective Admissions’ Charter Report Wrong?

Last week, Reuters published an analysis claiming that contrary to the ethos of the school choice movement and in some cases against federal and state laws, a large number of charter schools were practicing what was in effect selective admissions aimed at admitting only the best and most suitable students. Now, after looking directly at the data used in the Reuters report, the Center for Education Reform is saying that Reuters was wrong in its conclusions.

Specifically, CER takes exception to Reuters saying that certain practices by charter schools were an indication of selectivity when in reality they were nothing of the kind. For example, Reuters relied on the CER data showing that over 40% of charter schools don’t participate in the federal reduced lunch programs, saying that lack of participation means that the school lock out potential students from low-income families. The reality, however, is that most charter schools provide meals for all their students, but choose to do it out of their own budget since the restrictions placed on the federal program makes it more cost-effective to opt out of it.

Schools surveyed cite lack of facilities, administrative burdens, and requirements on staffing and compliance issues, as among the reasons they do not file for federal subsidies to participate. Schools participating in the federal lunch program, for example, are often told they may not hire parents to serve food or help with clean up; that volunteers are not permitted in the food prep area, and that certain local or neighborhood food providers are not acceptable. Charters in impoverished areas nobly seek to provide members of their communities with the business of their school, rather than pay national, expensive providers, with less desirable food to do the work.

Another practice mischaracterized by Reuters was the extensive information gathering prior to students being entered in a lottery process. This was not used to screen students out, but to prevent a paperwork scrum once the lottery results are announced and the academic year is about to begin. Taking these steps prior to the lottery allows the information to then be analyzed and an appropriate academic plans to be put into place in order to create a learning environment suitable to the unique characteristics of the student body.

Imagine a period where hundreds of applications to enroll are filed, and when the students are admitted, trying to get paperwork filled out to ensure the student is properly identified for grade, potential special needs, address, parent or guardian contact, health, etc. It makes sense that administratively lean organizations would take as much information as possible up front so that if and when the child is admitted, the process of getting them prepared for the school can begin swiftly.

Among the specific schools cited by the Reuters report, only one actually appears to have run afoul of the state or federal law – a school in Illinois that charged application fees. CER suggests that parents should get in touch with the school authorizer to bring up the issue, as it against the rules set by the state for operations of charter schools.

In other instances, schools follow both the spirit and the letter of the law, and using extensive writing requirements and parental contracts that demand a commitment of a certain number of hours per week don’t actually play a role in determining whether students are admitted or whether they get to stay.

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