By design, charter schools are supposed to be open to all students. The idea is that rather than gaining admission based on their zip code or test scores, charter school students are selected at random from all who are interested. A recent story by Reuters’ Stephanie Simon described a variety of practices some charter schools used to game this system of open enrollment by artificially limiting the selection pool. These practices, no matter how prevalent, are a violation of the fundamental premise of school choice and usually of a school’s charter contract and state charter law.
Responsible people do not support these practices. Indeed, the Reuters article quoted no one who defended them. Those who were quoted, and those who have commented publicly since, including Nina Rees at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, agree that these practices have no place in charter schools and should end immediately.
In exchange for strict accountability for performance, charter schools enjoy broad autonomy over many aspects of their operations. Admissions policies and procedures, however, can’t be left to schools alone. NACSA’s Principles and Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing make clear that authorizers have the responsibility to protect the rights of students – all students. To protect student rights and ensure open enrollment, authorizers must review the admissions procedures and plans of charter applicants before schools are approved to open and must monitor admissions practices regularly thereafter. If allegations emerge later, authorizers need to respond on a timely basis to determine what is taking place and intervene if necessary. Charter contracts and the authorizers’ own policies also should establish clear rules regarding permissible and prohibited practices. In some cases, admissions might best be handled through a district-wide choice process that gives all families equal access to all schools.
If authorizers are unwilling or unable to ensure that schools follow the law and comply with their obligations to students and the public, then states need to act to hold both schools and authorizers accountable. In some circumstances, the charter school laws and state policies are too weak. Those policies may need revision. NACSA encourages everyone—from parents and charter school boards to state education leaders and legislators–to examine what is going on in their area and take appropriate steps to create better access and more effective oversight and policies.
Like most issues that generate controversy in education, acknowledging that there are problems that need to be fixed does not mean fixing them is simple. But just because problems are complex doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to fix them. Context matters, and it helps to understand a problem well if you want to fix it. This is an issue that would benefit from more study, and our solutions should be informed by what is happening locally.
Given the lax oversight of some authorizers, and the complicated choice environments and weak policies on this particular issue in some states, there may be places where a coordinated approach is best to ensure fair access across entire systems. In other places, unacceptable practices may be isolated outliers that authorizers can address one at a time.
We know that there are thousands of charter schools across the country that are open to all families and provide children with a great education. Where this isn’t true, we need to act. Where there are problems, we need to fix them.