December 2, 2021

Kevin Welner: 13 ways charter schools shape their enrollment

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Kevin Welner is the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the co-author of the book “School’s Choice: How Charter Schools Control Access and Shape Enrollment.” In this guest appearance at Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet at the Washington Post, he offers a broad explanation of how charters control just which students they serve.

In many ways, the incentive to engage in selective enrollment practices is baked into the model. School-finance and test-based-accountability systems create strong incentives that encourage people running charter schools to enroll students who have lower needs for expensive services and have richer opportunities to learn outside of school.

Readers of “School’s Choice” will see how the deregulated nature of charter schools unleashed exclusionary practices and turned them into powerful tools for controlling access. Charters’ autonomy amplifies their capacity to weaponize access in a school-choice environment, as compared to district-operated public schools competing within that same context.

Welner acknowledges that public schools have some issues with fairness and equity.

There are, however, three key differences between charter-school access issues and those in district-run public schools. First is simply the issue of prevalence. There are approximately 24,000 public high schools in the U.S., and there are probably fewer than two dozen that are exam schools (eight of which are in NYC). Practices such as these are simply more prevalent in charter schools.

Second, some charter-school practices we describe don’t truly exist in district-run public schools. For example, a neighborhood public school cannot condition enrollment on a requirement that parents sign a contract committing to “volunteer” hours.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the choice context empowers charter schools to use access barriers as a way to push students away (or out). Overuse of suspension or threats of grade retention in a neighborhood public school are practices rightly considered to be harmful, but charters can combine these harmful practices with a clear message: The way to escape these threats is to transfer out of our school.

Policy reforms focused on accountability, funding systems, compliance, and transparency could change the context within which charters operate. This would, in turn, benefit the best charter schools and benefit the overall education system. But charter-school advocates have thus far resisted legislative change.

Here’s a challenge to researchers, reporters, and readers: The next time you hear a claim about charter schools, ask yourself, “How well does this claim hold up once we recognize the access differences between charter schools and district-run public schools?”

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