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Investigation Reveals How Charter Schools Betray Promises of "Equal Access"

For-profit charter schools have learned how to dodge requirements that keep doors open to students they'd rather not have

Jon Queally, staff writer

Teresa Villanueva (L) and her 11-year-old daughter Laritza receive help on their charter school application from Barrio Logan College Institute counselor Jennifer Pena (R) in San Diego, California, February 7, 2013. With the help though, says Teresa, "I wouldn't have been able to do it." (Photo: REUTERS/Mike Blake)

Corporate school reformers promote privately operated but publicly funded "charter schools" as one of the key components of their profit-friendly approach to solving what they call the failure of traditional public schooling, but a new investigative report from Reuters shows that many such institutions disregard their own promises of inclusion and equal opportunity by creating barriers to needier students while targeting for enrollment those most likely to pad test scores or otherwise enhance their own promises of "success".

As Reuters notes, there are many regulations that guide the admission behavior of charter schools, but because most of these rules are written by states there can be a wide divergence of how school districts operate nationwide. The investigation found that larger charter school operations—like KIPP, Yes Prep, Green Dot and Success Academy—have more equitable admission and enrollment structures, but that smaller, independently-run charters—whose numbers are growing exponentially nationwide as the corporate education reform movement helps remove barriers through state legislation—are inundated with practices that make a mockery of "equal access" to all students.

As Reuters reports, many charter schools across the US, despite their assurances to the contrary,

aggressively screen student applicants, assessing their academic records, parental support, disciplinary history, motivation, special needs and even their citizenship, sometimes in violation of state and federal law.

And the barriers documented include:

  • Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.
  • Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.
  • Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.
  • Mandatory family interviews.
  • Assessment exams.
  • Academic prerequisites.
  • Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The U.S. Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K-12 schools.

Many parents who looked to charter schools as an opportunity for their struggling kids found the hard way that "equal access"—even under blind lottery systems like the one documented in the heart-breaking documentary The Lottery— didn't mean that schools couldn't find ways to screen out students who they might find undesirable.

The case of parent Michelle Newman and her son, Lucas, illustrates the point:

Shortly after the school year began this fall, Michelle Newman got a call from The Intergenerational Charter School in Cleveland, Ohio. A spot had opened up in a third-grade classroom, and her 8-year-old son, Lucas, was first on the waiting list. Administrators said he could enroll after he took an exam.

The exam, part of a two-hour assessment, included questions drawn from state standardized tests. It didn't go well. Lucas was still in summer vacation mode and balked at some math problems, his mother said.

Still, she said she was shocked when the principal called a few days later to say Lucas could not enroll because staff had determined that he wasn't academically or developmentally ready for third-grade - even though he was enrolled in the third grade at his local public school, where he remains.

Charter schools say they take everyone, "but they didn't take him," Newman said. "It's not really about educating all children."

Beyond that, the investigation noted, many charter schools actually pre-screen the applications that are actually entered into the lottery. And because many parents who may speak little or no English, or struggle with the application process for a variety of reasons, are intimidated by the process, many are unaware of how to avoid such pitfalls.

Read the full investigative report at Reuters.

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