"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Lottery Before The Lottery: How Charters Select Motivated Families

This is the time of year when many charters in our area (and others) hold their annual lotteries to see which children will gain admission to their schools.  Aside from the pure absurdity of students having to enter a lottery to get a place at a regular "public" school, there are other problems with these admissions lotteries at charter schools. Now if you want to register your child at a regular public school (in which you live in the catchment) in Philadelphia, you simply must provide the school with the child's birth certificate and immunization records, you also must provide proof of parentage and address.  If charter schools are "public' schools, why is anything else required?  Before most charters even get to the selection lottery, they have a myriad of ways they require parents to prove to be extremely motivated.  Every teacher, principal, and school would dearly love to select students whose parents are motivated to help their child in every way they can---but the mission of PUBLIC education is to serve ALL children, not just those who are lucky enough to be born to motivated parents.  Therefore, it creates an extremely un-level playing field to allow schools using public money and claiming they are true "public" schools to select only really motivated families to enter their admission lotteries.  Here are some of the subtle ways that charters make sure the families that are eligible for the lottery are motivated to help their children succeed:

***Families must pick up and hand deliver the application:  one of the most sought after charters in Philadelphia requires applications to be "dropped-off" at certain days and times.  All of these times are from 4:00-6:00 PM.  That certainly excludes anyone who works a 3-11 type shift.  A parent on a local list-serv also reported that the "drop-off" took AN HOUR of her time!  This does not sound like 'dropping-off' to me--an hour seems more like an interview or at least an opportunity to size up parent and child.  This obviously excludes parents that do not have time (because of work or family commitments) to spend an hour or more simply trying to get a chance to enter an admission lottery.

***Parents/guardians must attend an open house or information meeting to get an application:  Another charter (that does a good job) requires parents and prospective students to attend an open house.  Once you attend the open house, you get an appointment for a during-the-day interview (during which you fill out the application).  This process requires a parent to be motivated and able to have a flexible schedule in order to get a spot in this school.

***Some charter school applications have "voluntary" essay questions that ask a family to describe their educational philosophy or explain why they want to attend the school.  Are these essays truly voluntary, or are they a way to weed out less motivated or articulate families?  Since there is little or no transparency in charter school lotteries, no one really knows.

***Strict application and paperwork deadlines:  Applications are due by a certain date and paperwork once a child is  accepted is strictly due by an enrollment date.  This seems simple enough, but regular public schools cannot require this.  These rules eliminate the disorganized and chaotic families which try the patience of regular public schools but whose children are still entitled to an education.

These are all steps that must be taken BEFORE an application is even put in the charter lottery.  What I am always curious about is this:  How does the public know that ALL applications that are received are even entered into the lottery?  How can we be sure that staff at charters are not going through applications and weeding out "less desirable" candidates?  Charters say they enter everyone, but the truth is there is no way to really know this.  If these are public schools, perhaps the lotteries should be standardized and run by an independent third-party--then we could be sure they are above board.  However, that still would not address the issue that charters are not held to the same standard that public schools have long been held to:  Educating ALL students no matter who their parents are or how motivated they are.  It is patently unfair to compare charter results with the results of schools that have no choice of which students they educate.