What’s Next on Charter School Backfill?

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In the media and in real life it seems clear that the charter school “backfill” issue is big and getting bigger — especially in districts where charters are a large and growing percentage of students:

A new report on charter backfilling is coming up from the University of Washington’s CRPE soon. A national charter group is adding the topic to its annual survey. A group of state charter organizations is going to announce a new commitment to quality (but no position on backfilling). Meanwhile, there are a handful of states with backfill requirements on the books, a few authorizers making backfill part of what they’re looking for, and and a few districts and charter networks that have come up with policies regarding what to do with open spaces during the year or between years.

ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS

The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) doesn’t have data on the practice or states’ legal requirements but tweeted out earlier this week that it believes charter schools should backfill:

“Most public charter schools backfill. We need to serve all children.”

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) hasn’t gathered information on backfill requirements in the past but is going to include questions about the practice in its next survey, according to ED Greg Richmond:

“We do not have good national data on policies and practices in this arena. We will in a few months because we are adding questions on this topic to our national survey.”

Speaking of authorizers, the head of the Illinois Charter School Network, Andrew Broy, notes that even in states where there is no specific requirement some charter authorizers are making it a part of the application process for charter openings and renewals:

“I think the trend is toward authorizers putting the requirement into charter contracts rather than states passing laws requiring backfill.” 

Broy is helping organize a new network of state charter school organizations that will be releasing a quality statement later this month but according to Broy it will take no position on backfilling.

RESEARCH ORGANIZATIONS

According to the folks at the University of Washington’s CRPE, Louisiana is the only state that specifically requires charter schools to backfill empty seats. It’s done voluntarily by some but not all charter operators in other places like DC and NYC.  CRPE has a new paper on this topic coming out soon.

The Education Commission of the States’ policy analyst Jennifer Thomsen says that her organization hasn’t tracked this issue specifically but the Massachusetts statute requires backfilling. Here’s the pertinent piece of the statutory language (Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 71, § 89 (n)):

When a student stops attending a charter school for any reason, the charter school shall fill the vacancy with the next available student on the waitlist for the grade in which the vacancy occurs and shall continue through the waitlist until a student fills the vacant seat. If there is no waitlist, a charter school shall publicize an open seat to the students of the sending district or districts and make attempts to fill said vacant seat. Charter schools shall attempt to fill vacant seats up to February 15, provided, however, that charter schools may but are not required to fill vacant after February 15.

If a vacancy occurs after February 15, such vacancy shall remain with the grade cohort and shall be filled in the following September if it has not previously been filled. A vacancy occurring after February 15 shall not be filled by adding a student to a lower grade level. Charter schools shall attempt to fill vacant seats up to February 15, excluding seats in the last half of the grades offered by the charter school, and grades 10, 11 and 12. Within 30 days of a vacancy being filled, the charter school shall send the name of the student filling such vacancy to the department for the purposes of the department updating its waitlist.

In Illinois, there is a provision related to filling the spot of military children (105 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/27A-4 (h)(2)), notes Thomsen. She found no such law on the books in Louisiana or California or for the District of Columbia.  (You can look further in the ECS state policy database page on charters.)

DISTRICTS

While it’s not required, some districts like New Orleans and DC have related policies or incentives in place that encourage the practice.

In places like New Orleans, where backfilling is near-universal, there’s the additional incentive of being familiar with a student who might otherwise be allowed to disenroll, compared to the unknown quantity that is a new student arriving mid-year or halfway through elementary school.

There’s also something called a centralized suspension policy there, through which suspensions are coupled with re-enrollment. The process of having a student leave one school has been coupled with the process of re-enrollment.

In DC, there’s an equity report that’s intended to highlight any disparities in services among different charters and between charters and district schools.

In both places, a common application and enrollment system have also helped, notes ChalkbeatNY’s Sarah Darville, who’s written on this in the past.

CHARTER NETWORKS

Success is the only network that can afford to limit backfill severely, but other networks like Achievement First and Uncommon Schools also engage in the practice, according to Darville. KIPP attempts to limit loss of students and according to this tweet has been able to backfill the vast majority of its open seats:

KIPP Philly says it does the same.

PHILANTHROPIC INFLUENCE

“One reason that charter schools can’t afford to take kids midyear is that they’re heavily supported by philanthropy,” notes CRPE’s Robin Lake in a recent talk with Justin Cohen (“Messy Stuff“).  “That’s not true for all charters, but a lot of the best ones get philanthropic support for slow, intentional growth. Some philanthropies are discouraging backfill, and we have to deal with that.”

This is by no means a comprehensive look at what’s going on around the backfill issue, but it’s a good start and suggests some obvious next steps for reporters or policy analysts who think the issue is an interesting one. A few more calls and inquiries might be able to dig up even more.

Related posts: The (Unnecessary) Charter School Waiting List Mystery

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.