How charter schools can play the lottery to promote diversity

Matt Barnum of the education reform outlet The 74 recently wrote about the role charter schools should play in fostering racial and socioeconomic integration.  “If policies and the commitment of charter operators can expand effective, integrated charter options,” Barnum concludes, “these focused schools of choice could well help foster a durable system of classroom integration that, to date, both charter and district schools have largely failed to provide.”

Barnum points to three sets of policies that could increase integration in charters: district-wide controlled parental choice plans, “mirror image” laws that require charters to reflect the demographic mix of local public schools, and weighing charter school lotteries to give priority to underrepresented or disadvantaged students.  (The Century Foundation also has a good rundown on the different integrative methods schools can utilize.)

It’s worth focusing a bit on the last of these policies.  Charter schools are legally required to hold an entrance lottery if they receive more applicants than they have spaces for.  Structuring the entrance lottery to favor a certain group of applicants thus raises interesting legal and philosophical questions about how charters should craft their student bodies and conceive of their educational mission.

Until recently, weighted lotteries had been subjected to significant constraints by the Department of Education.  These constraints have been modified largely by the advocacy of New York’s Success Academy, one of the most successful charter networks in the country.

By way of background, charter schools have historically been accused of failing to enroll their fair share of high needs students.  In 2010, New York amended its charter school law to set quotas requiring charters to enroll a certain number of English language learners and special education students.  In order to meet its quota, Success Academy moved to weight its lottery to favor these groups.

Federal law, however, complicated Success Academy’s plan.  The federal government’s primary vehicle for supporting charter schools is the Charter School Program, which provides a number of funding sources to charter schools.  To be eligible for funding, oversubscribed charter schools like Success must hold a “lottery” to pick entrants.  The Department of Education had interpreted “lottery” to mean that there cannot be any preferences.  This meant that Success’s weighted lottery violated the CSP, jeopardizing $15 million in grants that the network had been awarded.

Shelving its plan, Success Academy continued lobbying the Department of Education to reconsider.  In January 2014, the Department changed course, deciding that “a charter school may weight its lottery to give slightly better chances for admission to all or a subset of educationally disadvantaged students if State law permits the use of weighted lotteries in favor of such students.”  For purposes of the CSP, “educationally disadvantaged students” include low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners, among others.

This cleared the way for charter schools to prioritize certain disadvantaged students without sacrificing federal funding.  Some education experts suggest going further, however.  Richard Kahlenberg, an education scholar at the Century Foundation, argues that charters should be allowed to weight their lotteries to favor any group that is underrepresented in a school.  This would allow “[h]igh-poverty schools [to] set aside seats for middle-income families, or all-black schools [to] make room for white, Latino and Asian students[.]”

In fact, some schools already do versions of this, despite becoming ineligible for federal funds.  To avoid running afoul of Supreme Court limitations on using individual student race in K-12 school assignments, these schools draw on neighborhoods or zip codes as proxies for race in constructing a lottery algorithm, relying on residential segregation patterns to yield a diverse entrance class.  For instance, San Diego’s High Tech High aims to educate students that mirror local diverse demographics.  It therefore employs a weighted admission algorithm that yields a student body that is 65% minority and 38% low-income, while getting 100% of its students accepted into college.

So charter schools have tools at their disposal to promote integration.  But these tools may require grappling with and evolving upon principles that some charter advocates hold dear.  For one thing, tinkering with the lottery is plainly at odds with the egalitarian ethic of charters’ current admission process.  Charter advocates seek equality of educational opportunity, be it at the time of admission—that everyone should have a fair shot at going to a good school—or throughout elementary and secondary school—that the poor should get the same caliber education as the non-poor.  Tilting the odds in favor of an underrepresented group seemingly drifts away from this basic principle.

Some advocates also find it doubly offensive to give favor to students who don’t truly “need” to attend a charter school.  The core mission of charter advocates is to serve the underserved.  When charter schools award seats to middle-income students who have access to other high-quality public or private schools, these spots come at the expense of poor students with few other good options.  For instance, Marcia Aaron, the executive director of the 99 percent minority and 89 percent low-income KIPP Los Angeles schools, told the Huffington Post that any policy that reduces available seats for disadvantaged students communicates that charters aren’t sufficiently focused on providing high quality options for the neediest children.  To some, cultivating a critical mass of white middle-class students in charters is just not a good use of scarce resources.

However, there is a bounty of research showing that learning in a socioeconomically diverse environment is hugely beneficial for all students, and especially for the very population of underserved students that charters aim to serve.  Studies show that students living in low-income housing who attend integrated schools perform better than those attend high poverty schools.  Other research shows that integrated education leads to better academic performance, college enrollment, and economic gains for all students.

The high performance of some well-established charter networks like KIPP and Success Academy shows that low-income students can thrive in a racially and economically isolated setting.  This is tremendous news for schools and children in deeply segregated neighborhood tracts, where integration may be virtually impossible.

But in schools where integration is possible, cultivating diversity is a boon for low-income students, yielding benefits that charters simply cannot provide in isolation.  Unlike traditional public schools, charters aren’t necessarily beholden to their immediate geography.  These schools should move beyond the admirable initial instinct to triage the K-12 academic opportunities for as many disadvantaged students as possible, taking a broader conception of what it means to give these students a quality education.  In the twenty-first century, any definition of a well-rounded education requires a meaningful degree of integration.

Our policy is slowly coming around to this view.  Once a key plank of civil rights policy, proactive school integration fell out of favor after the busing controversies of the 1970s.  Lately though, more and more schools across the country are actively attempting to provide their students with a socioeconomically diverse learning environment.  In his final budget, President Obama has proposed a $120 million fund to reward schools who come up with the best plans to foster diversity.  And the Department of Education is now seeking ideas about how federally-funded turnaround schools can promote voluntary socioeconomic diversity.

One of the ideas on the table for many charter schools should be structuring their lotteries to prioritize a diverse student body.  Federal and state policy, along with philanthropic funding, will need to catch up so as to not disadvantage charters that deliberately try to integrate.  And some charters will need to reassess what it means to provide an equal educational opportunity to disadvantaged students.

But these are steps worth taking.  The data have long confirmed that students of all classes and races benefit from going to school together.  A renaissance for integration would thus be remarkable progress for our education system.

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