February 3, 2015

Should Charter Schools Be Forced To Backfill Seats?

By Bellwether

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Important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today about the issue of backfilling seats in charter schools. Princess Lyles and Dan Clark – two charter school supporters – argue that because charters can decide whether or not to admit students throughout the school year or in every grade (some schools start cohorts of students in a particular grade, say only 5th, 7th, or 9th for instance) thousands of students are being denied access to good schools.* Authorizers and charter laws should require backfilling throughout the year and in every grade Lyles and Clark argue.

Reaction was swift. As soon as the article hit Twitter Fordham’s Mike Petrilli responded that, “I’m sorry …but requiring #charterschools to backfill seats is a terrible idea.” I’m not so sure and would file this under the broader bucket of issues facing the charter school sector as its share of students grows overall and especially in communities where charters educate a third of the students or more.

Requiring every school to do something may not make sense. Special education is illustrative here. Every traditional public school doesn’t serve all special education students who come through the door. Rather, some special education students are concentrated in particular programs to meet their needs, but the public school system overall does serve all those students. When charter enrollment his 30, 40, or 50 percent of a district’s overall enrollment it’s legitimate to ask what the obligations of the charter sector to serve an equitable percentage of those students – not school by school but overall – are. Those questions are being asked of charter authorizers now. The question Lyles and Clark raise here is fundamentally no different.

In the case of backfilling, I’m not sure every school should be required to backfill. Some schools have proven to be very successful at building grade-by-grade and policymakers should be cautious about disrupting the conditions that are improving life outcomes for a lot of kids. But other charters do backfill now.** As charters continue to grow it’s surely legitimate to ask if it’s tenable to have a sector of schools that doesn’t admit students except at certain points alongside a sector that admits them at any point in time.*** And if it’s not, what should be done about it? Not in a way that hamstrings exceptional charters but in a way that recognizes that in many places charter schools are no longer an upstart marginal idea, they’re becoming the school system.

*Although this point remains contested research comparing similar students pretty consistently shows that while charter quality remains uneven there is a part of the sector that dramatically outperforms other schools. And the aggregate trends are moving in the right direction – albeit not as fast as many would like and not in some states. More here.

**Some charter advocates are frustrated when the performance of schools that backfill is lumped in with those that don’t and then sweeping judgements about school quality and effectiveness are made. That’s a fair complaint but has more to do with research and analysis (and advocacy) than with policy. Requiring backfilling or not should be about building education systems that meet the needs to as many students as possible not about school PR or optics.

***Fundamentally this is a values tension issue. People don’t like to lay the question bare but the question that undergirds a lot of these conversations boils down to how much inequity are we willing to tolerate in the interest of progress and excellence? Gifted programs surely advantage some students over others as do selective public magnet schools and AP or IB tracks. You don’t hear a lot of complaining about those. Allowing some schools to resist backfilling to pursue their mission is an issue in the same vein albeit increasingly on a larger scale.

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