Public School Systems Beat Charters with Equitable Services Systemically Provided

While charter schools in a lot of places are known to use subtle, unnamed selective screens—there are far fewer English language learners, for example, and students with extremely serious disabilities enrolled in charter schools nationwide—only in New Orleans are there explicitly selective charter schools.  The rules were bent for three already selective-admission magnet schools—Benjamin Franklin High School, Lusher Charter School, and Lake Forest Elementary School—in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, when the charter experiment in New Orleans was launched.  These three schools administer admissions tests and choose the students they will accept, and they are, like all the city’s other open-enrollment charter schools, without tuition.  Writing for the Hechinger Report, Marta Jewson explains, “In a city where private-school tuition rivals college costs, gaining admission to these free public schools is like finding the golden ticket.”  Not surprisingly, all three charter schools that can select high-scoring students post high aggregate test scores.

An earlier piece by the same author explains the OneApp process that has, after several years of working out the glitches, lately been coordinating admissions more smoothly for New Orleans’ 82 charter schools (apart from the three with selective admissions) that accept applications from families across the city: “The OneApp selection uses software that takes a number of factors into account when placing students, including their ranking of schools and preferences for siblings or if a student’s current school is closing.  Of the 11,391 valid applications submiitted through OneApp, which assigns students to a majority of the city’s schools, 75 percent of students got one of their top three choices.  On the flip side, 2,325 students were not matched to any school they wanted.  About half of the unmatched students will apply again in a second round and the others will stay at their current school.”

Jewson reports that 54 percent of students using OneApp were admitted to the school that was their first choice while 20 percent of students were not accepted into any of the schools to which they applied.  Students who are not accepted will remain in the school they currently attend, unless, like the student at Lagniappe Academy and Miller-McCoy Academy, their school is being closed for low performance.  Such students are forced to request another choice.

New Orleans, with three explicitly selective charter schools, is an anomaly.  But there remain serious questions everywhere about the ways school choice reproduces and intensifies inequality.  Unlike neighborhood public schools, charters are permitted everywhere to close overall admissions by setting enrollment caps when a school’s administration deems it is full. Some charters “protect their school culture” by choosing not to accept new students to fill spaces after students drop out; their enrollment numbers drop as students move to higher grades and the schools continue to work with the children they have been grooming since the primary grades. Charters are known to screen students merely by choosing to locate in particular neighborhoods or they choose the languages in which they advertise.  And few charters are intentional about reaching out to extremely poor or homeless students.

While such subtle screens are common from city to city, for charter schools to screen applicants with admissions tests is unusual.  As Jewson reports, in New Orleans the consequences are predictable: “What with admissions tests, multiple mandatory meetings and in-person delivery of applications, it is small wonder why fewer than 50 percent of students at Lusher are minorities, and why only 21 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged.  By contrast, 98 percent of RSD (the state Recovery School District) students in New Orleans are minorities, and 92 percent are economically disadvantaged.”

The theory behind the kind of “portfolio school district” of which New Orleans is said to be the model posits that good choices will be provided for all families in every neighborhood.  School choice, however, inevitably favors the families savvy enough to know how to play the system by writing the best applications, delivering applications on time, and requesting a smart package of possible choices in a OneApp process.  Traditional public schools are designed around the idea that the public ought to provide for all children who appear at their doors—even if the children have special needs—even if they arrive in mid-November or February.

A system of pubic schools is likely to provide better coordinated services and to take advantage of economies of scale. A system of public schools is more likely to provide less churn and far more stable services for the majority of children. A public system, accountable to an elected school board, is more likely to serve the needs and protect the rights of the mass of our children.

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