Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why We Must Vote #NoOn2 - Problems With the Lottery System

This is the second installment of a series of posts I’m writing about ballot question number 2 in Massachusetts this fall, which allows voters to decide whether or not to allow the state to both open more charter schools and/or more seats in existing charter schools.   Clicking this link will bring you to the first piece, which covers my issue with the question itself and with the issue being decided by a citizens’ vote. The highlights are that:

  1. If charters are needed or considered to be serving an important and desired need in a community, this should be a community vote, not a state-wide ballot.
  2. This issue has a lot of nuance to it, and I don’t believe most voters will understand what the details are to the point where they are voting as informed citizens instead of emotionally reacting to an idea.
  3. This may be a different discussion if the economics of it weren’t so unsustainable, and I’m worried that people are going to vote about charters, philosophically, instead of recognizing the economic issues involved.

Charter school advocates refer to charters as “public charter schools,” believing that they’re public because they are funded by public tax dollars and because they admit students from the community via lottery systems.  I’m going to get into the issue of charter funding in a separate piece, so I’m skipping it for now.

There are rumors about charter schools fixing their lottery systems, only inviting certain people to ever apply into their lottery systems and canvassing certain neighborhoods to try to stack their lottery involvement.  Truthfully, I haven’t seen any of that.  I also haven’t heard of that in Massachusetts, so I’m not going to give it any legs here.  

- I will only define a public school as one that accepts full responsibility for the education of any and all student-aged citizens of a community.  I refer to them as “true public schools” because their are no barriers to their being enrolled, and they will stay enrolled until they graduate, regardless of the struggles.  I don’t know if there are charters in MA who try to avoid having certain students and/or rig their lottery systems to ensure that that happens, but I do absolutely know that the overwhelming majority of our neediest public school students just don’t apply.

  • I personally know students who have been pushed out of charter schools for academic, behavioral, and attendance issues as well as people who have been told that their charter couldn’t meet their child(ren)’s special education needs.

  • There is a two-way problem here. It’s not only that charters ending up with a huge majority of “high-capacity families” (those who can navigate systems and support any unserved needs) but also that this is leaving the public schools with a lighter advocacy pool (those families that have the time, ability, and confidence to fight for their students’ needs), a topic I’ll get more into in another post.

- Students whose parents don’t understand what a charter school is don’t apply.  Charter advocates say that anyone is welcome to apply, but I’ve worked with a lot of families who struggle to understand how to navigate the logistics of their neighborhood school and how important some basics are, like getting to school on time and communicating with teachers and the front office.  These families are always going to be in the true public schools because they just don’t have the time and wherewithal to apply for anything else. They expect their neighborhood school to support their children.  

- Students whose parents don’t know whether or not the school can handle their child(s) special education needs don’t apply.  I know special education isn’t always a perfect system, but parents of high-needs special education students (think: autistic students, those with 1:1 paraprofessionals, those with needs for nursing care, those with extreme mental and/or social-emotional needs) are not considering charter schools.  If they are doing so somewhere that I’m not aware of, that’s great; it’s not the norm, though.

- There are many charters that accept students from behind their host community.  From those areas, only families who can provide transportation to and from school are enrolling in the charters.  This is an obvious divide on a socio/economic level and on a logistical capacity level.    

- Because families often have to apply to school lotteries by a certain date, anyone moving into a district beyond that date (as early as January/February) has a better chance of being excluded.  They would not only need to know they’re moving into an area in time to apply, but also need to be able and willing to do the research and potentially apply without talking to anyone who’s gone to that charter.  It’s not always so, but transient children - and their families - are often at higher academic and social/emotional risk.  Moving is traumatic under the best of circumstances, so when it’s caused by unexpected divorce, job loss, home foreclosures, family death, child relocation, family homelessness, etc., families are coming to the true public schools at all times during the year with high needs.

- While there are some charters with some ELL (English Language Learner) students, families with limited English proficiency, especially those who move from another country, are not applying into charter schools.

- Students with parents/families who aren’t able, willing, or generally inclined to be heavily involved in schooling aren’t going to get into the lottery.  There are rumors out there of charter schools that mandate parents pay fees and sign up for volunteer hours.  I don’t know if that’s true.  What I do know is that there are a lot of parents who don’t keep their phone numbers up to date, don’t make it to conferences, miss established teacher meetings, don’t come for teacher conferences, aren’t at home doing homework with their kids, and/or who just don’t trust public institutions like schools and police.  Sometimes these families don’t want to come in and don’t bother to come in.  Other times, they are kept from coming in by a wide variety of reasons like the hours they work and/or the family members they take care of.    Not all PTO meetings and band concerts are fully attended.  Not all family are going to apply to charter schools.  

The major question with this ballot question is this:  Do you want an industry that rests on so many uncertainties - like those here and those about school economics that I’ll cover in future posts - to expand at all, much less without any reflection and improvements to the system?  Here is a link to Newburyport’s resolution against the ballot question, in which you can read about a number of common sense upgrades to the charter model in Massachusetts.  
I hope this brief overview help you to understand that the issue around charter schools’ lotteries system absolutely doesn’t boil down to everyone equitably have a chance to attend charters and accepting that chance.

As always, I am in interested in the conversation and welcome your feedback. By the way, in case you don't believe me, here are a few "accountability charts" from DESE. They show the Performance Rating for the River Valley Charter School and a number of its sending towns. This is just one small example of how a regional charter school has NONE of the "high needs" students from its home district and/or its sending districts. Even I thought they'd have some students who fit into at least one of the categories. Many people will just see "Level 1" vs "Level 2," though. My question is about how setting up this regional charter is going to help these districts' neediest students.

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