Who knew that New York City has a name for what lots of charter schools do or fail to do: accept new students when students drop out. Backfilling students. In NYC, “backfilling students” is a practice that is chosen or rejected by particular charter school operators.
Right now it is also the subject of policy discussions in NYC about what should be expected of charter schools and charter school networks as a condition of their charters. According to an excellent article that explains all this from Chalkbeat New York: “Charter schools (in NYC) must spell out their enrollment policies when they ask for permission to operate. But authorizers have been loath to require charters to adopt one backfill policy or another, seeing it as one way in which the schools exercise their autonomy that defines them as a charter school, and so schools frequently include vague language in their charters.”
Chalkbeat New York continues: “Now, the issue is growing in prominence as school leaders try to anticipate how the mayor will deal with charter schools in the years ahead, and especially how the city might charge charter schools rent to operate in public space.” There are important considerations of equity as the new mayor, Bill de Blasio and his education chancellor Carmen Farina try to address the privilege and favored status some charter school operators received under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “One charter leader described the potential trade-off this way: The city provides space rent-free if the schools commit to more inclusive enrollment tactics. Then the choice becomes the operator’s: do we want to go along or stick to our model and pay a penalty for it?”
Some charter school operators in NYC and elsewhere refuse to fill places vacated by children who drop out, because they claim that it is more difficult to bring newcomers fully into the school’s culture or to catch new students up academically. “Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools. Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to the new school and be academically behind. Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one ‘backfilled’ seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.”
This is a common situation for traditional public schools, but Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools, for example, “backfill” only young children in the very early grades—only “through the third grade, and students in all subsequent grades up to high school must have started by that grade.” It is believed that one reason Moskowitz’s schools and others that refuse to “backfill” are able to post high test scores is because they do not continue to accept new students, as traditional schools are required to do.
In contrast, Chalkbeat New York describes Harlem Link Charter School’s policy of accepting new students to fill vacated seats. The school’s founder believes the school should continue to accept new students in every grade despite that, “Last year 17 percent of its students cleared the state’s proficiency bar in reading, below the city’s average, and 29 percent did in math, which is at the city average.”
The issue is complicated because some charters are privileged by receiving free rent in district-owned buildings. Public funding for charters in New York is provided on a per-pupil basis. Schools that are paying rent for their facilities must accept enough students to fill all the seats because each child carries part of the funding that will pay the rent. The privileged charter chains, Success Academies, for example, can afford not to “backfill students” because they are not faced with the expense of paying rent.
Ironically, there isn’t a name for the historical practice of accepting all children who present themselves at traditional public schools across America. Children come to school and a place is found for them in class. When a practice is just part of what has always happened for as long as anybody can remember, there is no reason to consider giving that practice a name. I suppose in a traditional public school it might simply be called the “we take everybody” practice.