As public schools with the flexibility to do things differently, charter schools have the unique potential to meet the particular needs and interests of their individual communities when it comes to ensuring equitable and accessible classrooms. A recent report by the Century Foundation examines charter school policies that support equity, and while the foundation uses a unique lens with an eye towards integration, most of the policies lauded are really about ensuring fairness and access for all. In other words, are parents who want to send their children to a high-quality school—whether they prefer a diverse student body or an ethnically homogenous one—able to do so and get what their students needs to thrive?
Building protections for vulnerable students and families into the law is central to ensuring all students access public schools that prepare them for success in life. That’s why in the coming months, NACSA’s policy team will begin exploring issues of access and equity in states’ charter laws and provide data, guidance, and examples of how different states approach these issues.
However, universal policies can potentially have unintended consequences on school autonomy. Authorizers should also ask themselves how they can support schools and ensure their schools are accessible and equitable for all, but especially the most underserved students.
I offer three ways for authorizers to dig in and push ahead:
Transportation plans. Transportation can be an essential link for some students to have access to a charter school. The Century Foundation report found 26 states do not require and fund the transportation of charter school students. In addition, NACSA’s recent analysis of the national charter school pipeline found fewer than a third of new charter proposals in states lacking these requirements included transportation plans, and the presence or absence of a plan had no influence on approval rates.
Authorizers in these states can still encourage school leaders to consider whether their current practices unintentionally prevent students who cannot afford transportation services from enrolling in their school. This may not be necessary for some schools, such as those with missions to serve children from the local neighborhood. But for others, authorizers should ensure transportation plans are in place, so all students have fair and equitable access to attend the school of their choice, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Mandatory volunteer hours. Given the well-documented effects parental involvement has on students’ academic and social achievement, many charter schools encourage parent involvement in school affairs. However, authorizers must watch closely, as there is a thin line between highly encouraging and mandating parental involvement, and this practice often prohibits certain parents, like those who do not have flexible work schedules or means of transportation, from enrolling their children in a school.
The report found only five states explicitly prohibit mandatory parent volunteer hours. Thus, authorizers in the 39 states without these prohibitions should be vigilant in their monitoring to ensure a parent’s limited ability to volunteer in school activities does not prevent their child from attending the school.
Weighted lotteries. Although two-thirds of states allow charter schools to use some form of a weighted lottery considering diversity factors, the report found few charter schools have implemented such lotteries so far.
Authorizers can encourage a school to use weighted lotteries and enrollment preferences to diversify its student population, especially where they have proven effective: enrolling ethnic minority students and those at risk of academic failure. However, authorizers must exercise professional judgment, as requiring weighted lotteries for all schools can have unintended consequences. For example, a school focused on serving a diverse population may ultimately turn away students with the most need for a high-quality academic program (e.g., students from an economically disadvantaged neighborhood) by identifying preferences for students not in this group. When used, authorizers should ensure weighted lotteries are strategic and fit the mission of the school.
Charter schools cannot rewrite the history of discriminatory housing policies and income inequalities that perpetuate inequality in our public schools. But charters and their authorizers have real opportunities to combat the damaging effects of this disenfranchisement. Authorizers, it’s time to dig into this report and reflect on how well your schools meet student needs and what you are doing about it.