The (Unnecessary) Charter School Waiting List Mystery

One of the things that bothers me most is when education debates (and the coverage surrounding them) are based on partial or incomplete information. 

Sometimes, the limits are unavoidable; complete or comparable information just isn’t available for some obvious reason. Other times, however, the information is out there, it just hasn’t been publicized or collected or asked for yet. Either way, I worry that reporters don’t push harder to get information that might be available — or to call out the lack of information that’s being made available.

This information gap issue comes to mind thanks to a recent opinion piece in RealClear Education by Richard Whitmire who describes how some of the most troubling issues that are raised as concerns about charter schools — limits on so-called “backfilling” (enrolling students during the year and between grades), in adequate services to special education students, and punitive student discipline policies — aren’t as much an issue in New Orleans as they may be in other places.  

Backfilling may not be an issue in New Orleans, but it’s a big issue in New York City and its related issues — charter school waiting lists among them — are controversial in several other places.  And nobody — not advocates, or critics, or news outlets — seems to know offhand (or be willing to share) just how common or unusual it is for charters to limit student enrollments.

And the lack of information about charter school backfill practices seems unfortunate and unnecessary to me.

In his New Orleans piece, Whitmire describes how charters are the “new normal” in New Orleans, responsible for educating the vast majority of students — and doing traditional things like intramural sports teams, as well as “cheerleaders, marching band, and majorettes.” 

Indeed, charter schools in New Orleans are much more prevalent than in other cities like Washington DC, where nearly half of students are in charters, or nationally, where the number is below six percent.

But understanding what’s going on in New Orleans schools is important because so much has changed there in the past decade since Hurricane Katrina, and because so many eyes and news outlets (NPR, Hechinger Report, among others) are focused on its progress (or lack thereof) as part of 10th anniversary coverage. 

The backfill issue, along with student discipline and special education, is an important point because it contrasts so clearly with traditional neighborhood schools who take students who show up regardless of what time of year it is.  (Or at least, they’re supposed to — more on that in another post.) 

In many places, the process for applying to charter schools and lottery-based admissions are highly regulated, but what happens next in terms of waitlists and mid-year admissions is much less tightly controlled.

“Some schools, seeking to fulfill a larger mission and bolster their finances, fill those spots by calling students off of their waiting lists,” observes Sarah Darville in ChalkbeatNY. “Other schools focus on teaching the students who remain, avoiding a potential drop in test scores and the social and academic disruption of adding new students.” 

It’s not just mid-year transfers that some charters don’t allow.  They don’t take students in non-enrollment years.

In addition to basic fairness and funding concerns, the backfill issue also raises new questions about charter schools’ much-publicized waiting lists and the need to raise caps on the number of charter schools.  Charter school advocates continue to point to big waiting lists in some districts.  But as AFT head Randi Weingarten put it:

Why would you lift the NYC charter cap when the charters aren’t backfilling the open 2,500 seats? http://t.co/SBf9N07Cjz

— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) May 27, 2015

“Why would you lift the NYC charter cap when the charters aren’t backfilling the open 2,500 seats?”

According to Whitmire, this and other  controversies regarding charters are muted in New Orleans because the practices of charters and district schools are increasingly similar: “Everybody backfills. Not only does everyone backfill, but everyone also shares in students who arrive mid-year, who often prove to be very weak students.” 

Whitmire is a pro-reform writer who’s written books about Michelle Rhee and Rocketship high-tech charter schools. He’s currently a fellow with the Emerson Collective, the nonprofit funded in large part by Laurene Powell Jobs.

But others closer to the action and not necessarily pro-charter seem to agree. Tweeted local education reporter Danielle Dreilinger: “I didn’t even know “backfill” was a concept until I had been on the beat for a year.” Or, as pro-charter Peter Cook put it, “Yes, charters in NOLA backfill and no, it isn’t the end of the world.”

The issue seems to divide the reform world. Some charter advocates like Fordham’s Mike Petrilli are against requiring charters to backfill.  Others, like the University of Washington’s CRPE, feel it’s a necessary and positive move. Pro-charter Whitney Tilson agrees: “Charter schools, like all public schools, should have to backfill.”

The pro-charter group Democracy Builders has recently called for charters to backfill just like traditional schools do. Its report, “No Seat Left Behind,” focused on New York and called for passage of an “enrollment transparency” law.  According to the report, charters in New York City lose 6-11 percent of students each year and left 2,500 seats open during 2014.

But advocates’ and operators’ positions aren’t what we need to know here. We need information. What states and districts allow charters not to backfill, and which charters/charter networks limit enrollment of students to certain grade levels and times of year?

The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says that some states like Massachusetts require all schools to backfill, and that there are economic reasons for schools to do so even if it makes things harder for teachers and other students in the short run. “It is hard for a school that has high attrition rates to not backfill – the math simply doesn’t work.”

Whitmire tells me that he hasn’t seen any national figures on the backfill issue, and that it isn’t uniform within districts. “My experience is that everyone does it differently. Some may backfill all the way through middle school, but not high school, or at least not seek out new students for high school.”

By email and twitter, I’ve asked everyone I can think of — ECS, NCSL, USDE, AFT, NAPCS, NACSA, CRPE, KIPP, INCS, CalCharters — whether there’s more information about this practice and what their policies or positions are on it. I’ll let you know if and when I hear more.

Disclosure: The charter school turnaround I wrote about in 2011’s Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, was a neighborhood zone school that took students in throughout the year. Whether it still does, or what the enrollment practices are in the rest of the network, I do not know.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.