The Impact of Charter Enrollment Preferences

My colleague Carrie Du Bois asked an interesting question at our last Board meeting: how many children on the Federal free and reduced price lunch program are enrolled at CLC? Carrie often asks about this issue, and not just as regards CLC. She’s concerned impoverished children, who are the main beneficiaries of the program, are often overlooked when education issues are debated. She would like to see that situation rectified.

Neither staff nor the other trustees knew the answer. But it sparked an explanation from Chris Mahoney which she found confusing and which I’ve heard from a number of people at CLC. Carrie sought my perspective on it, which can be summed up in a few words: it’s incorrect and/or misleading.

The explanation Chris gave Carrie was simple: the District’s requirement that CLC give San Carlos students top priority in enrollment is the main reason CLC doesn’t have more kids from the free and reduced price lunch program. Chris also told Carrie he believes the end result – underserving a population of at-risk kids — is really wrong.

I happen to agree with him that it’s wrong…but the District isn’t to blame.

So far as I know, neither the District nor the Board has asked CLC to give San Carlos kids top priority. In fact, the explanation is rather humorous because a number of “old hands” at CLC have asserted exactly the opposite: the District encouraged CLC to focus on accepting out of district students. How the District can simultaneously require CLC to give preference to both out of district and in-district students I leave as an exercise for the reader :).

Now it is true that last year the superintendent was keenly interested in how many new in-district kindergartners CLC was enrolling. But that was not because the District wanted CLC to accept more new in-district kinders than CLC wished to take. The District was struggling to find space for all its students and wanted to know to what extent CLC’s acceptances would reduce the number of new kids enrolling in the District.

The real culprit here, if there is one, is California’s charter law. It requires charter schools give preference to students applying from their chartering agency’s service area (i.e., in CLC’s case, from the District). That language is contained in Ed Code section 47605(d)2(B), which states in part:

Preference shall be extended to pupils currently attending the charter school and pupils who reside in the district except as provided for in Section 47614.5.

This code section defines how a charter’s enrollment lottery must work if more students are interested in attending the school than the school can handle. Technically the preference only exists when there’s more “demand” than “supply”…but then again, a preference doesn’t mean anything when “supply” exceeds “demand”, because then by definition everyone who wants in can get in :). Section 47614.5, by the way, describes a construction finance program for charters which serve mostly impoverished students. It doesn’t change the point section 47605(d)2(B) makes about preferences.

The fact that charter law mandates the preference has nothing to do with the effect of the preference, of course. In that sense Chris may be right about the results of the preference in San Carlos (I say “may” for reasons I’ll touch on in a moment).

However, the idea that this state of affairs was caused by the District is simply incorrect, because the preference is required by law. The District is not responsible. Unfortunately, given Chris’ strong belief that underserving less-well-off kids is a bad thing, the incorrect explanation also implies the District is doing something wrong. Which is not the case.

By the way, preferences aside, self-selection bias might lead to underrepresentation of impoverished students at a charter school. The founder of High Tech High, a well-known and well-regarded charter school in San Diego, once got really angry at me for publicly sharing data showing High Tech High was more “exclusive”, ethnically, socio-economically and from a special ed perspective, than its chartering district. I’ve never forgotten what he said to me: “Who do you think has the time, energy and inclination to seek out a charter school?” Perhaps he is right.

But, if so, that just points up what a charter school should do if practice and custom leads to an outcome considered undesirable: aggressively recruit children from more diverse backgrounds. I’m sure if the CLC leadership puts its mind to it they can come up with a number of ways to avoid the outcome that Chris dislikes.

Whatever happens, though, I hope people will avoid blaming the District for something which is not the District’s fault.


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24 Responses to The Impact of Charter Enrollment Preferences

  1. eileen says:

    When I entered the lottery to get my son into Charter many years ago, I remember that San Carlos residents were given priority. I’d like my child to go to Palo Alto High School, too, but I have to live in Palo Alto or enter a lottery to get a spot. I don’t understand what the issue is here and why it’s being discussed as if somehow CLC is trying to pull one over. All schools and districts give preference to the students who live in the district. Otherwise, we’d all be commuting.

    • admin says:

      It’s not about putting one over, it’s about not blaming the District for something the District has no control over. I’d have no problem with Chris critiquing the situation or the results, but blaming the District is not kosher. Unfortunately, due to the number of times this incorrect explanation has been repeated, it’s a fairly widespread perspective. One which I am trying to correct.

      – Mark

      • Colleen says:

        That’s understandable and it’s certainly not ok to spread information that is not true.  However, you don’t just say that Chris is blaming the District for something that is not the fault of the District.  You also imply that CLC (and perhaps all Charter schools) is exclusive and underserving needy populations.  I’m wondering how CLC compares to the other San Carlos schools in this respect and what the other schools are doing that gives them the advantage in terms of serving disadvantaged kids.

        • admin says:

          The data on the overall charter school movement in California being more “exclusive” is pretty well-established (I did a big analysis a few years ago using Dept of Ed data which bore it out). Personally, I don’t find that surprising given the observation that Larry made, which I think neatly captures the main driving forces behind it.

          When last I looked CLC was slightly more exclusive than the rest of the District, but the difference is immaterial given San Carlos’ demographics. What difference there is probably mostly due to the fact that the District accepts about 50 kids from East Palo Alto under a court-ordered settlement reached many years ago (the Tinsley program). I don’t know why CLC doesn’t participate in the Tinsley program when all the other District schools do. There is a desire not to separate the Tinsley kids from their friends, but that’s not a show-stopper.

          If the self-selection bias described by Larry exists, then if charter schools want to be as diverse as their chartering agencies they’d have to take action to offset the effect. Whether they do that or not is up to the, of course.

          • MIA says:

            Of course SCCLC is self-selecting….one of the requirements is a significant amount of parent participation –80 hours per year for 1 student, 120 for more than 1 student.  This is significant commitment on the part of SCCLC families.  Very difficult for all families, and probably near impossible for families that don’t live in the neighborhood.  Just another attempt by the powers that be to blame the financial problems of the district on SCCLC

  2. Colleen says:

    I have a few questions:
    1. I’m curious how CLC compares on this issue to the other San Carlos schools.  Can you provide those data?  
    2. Do those free and reduced lunch kids at the other schools tend to come from out of district or in district?
    3. I thought we had an issue of not having enough space for SC kids right now and that our middle schools were going to be severely impacted.  Should we be taking more out-of-district kids in order to increase our enrollment of children from the free and reduced price lunch program?

  3. admin says:

    The other schools have a higher number/proportion of kids from the program in their student populations. I don’t know where they come from specifically, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a goodly number of them are from out of district.

    Yes, the District middle schools are heavily impacted right now. As to whether more out of district kids should be recruited, I think that’s a complicated question. But my point here isn’t that. Chris’ explanation to Carrie made it clear he thinks CLC (and I presume by extension the whole District) should have a more diverse student body, but that the District is keeping CLC from achieving that. Which is not the case, as I explained in the posting.

    As to whether or not CLC should do more outreach, that’s up to the school’s leadership. If they want to there are things that can be done, some quite simple to implement. Although given space constraints it’d probably require changing preferences.

  4. Colleen says:

    I suppose it’s a bit confusing because there are really two issues here:
    1.  Chris spreading misinformation which would obviously not be ok.
    2.  CLC underserving children from the free/reduced lunch program compared to other schools who get a number of these kids from out of distict (OOD).  This one is much more complicated.  According to your last response CLC would probably have to increase their enrollment of OOD kids in order to increase our enrollment of those who are underserved but since the Middle Schools are impacted right now this might not even be advisable.  So I’m not clear on what CLC’s action should be in this regard.

    • admin says:

      I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion in #2. But I do agree that it would be a challenging thing to do. It all depends on how important the underlying issue (i.e., attempting to increase diversity) is. And I’m not trying to be coy in saying it that way, it’s perfectly legitimate to stack it up against all the other goals a school has. I just assumed from the tone of Chris’ email to Carrie that it was really important to him, and so presumably of some importance to the school.

      • Colleen says:

        When I look at the greatschools data it says that White Oaks has 1% free and reduced price lunch and CLC has 0%.  I’m wondering how meaningful that difference is.  Heather has 9%.  Is that difference between WO and Heather also meaningful? I do agree that all our SC schools should strive to accomodate more underserved children.  How to do that is going to be difficult for every school given how impacted our schools are right now.

  5. Mark says:

    Hi, Interesting topic for this election year. I am curious about this Mark, can you tell me the do you have any breakdown on the free/redudced lunch K-5 children between the various district schools. White Oaks, Heather, Brittan Acres and Arundel and Charter.  

    • admin says:

      No, sorry, not offhand. But you should be able to get information from the District office. And, now that I think of it, perhaps the California Department of Education website’s data repository.

  6. Mark says:

    Thats great, whom do I contact at the SCSD office?

  7. admin says:

    A couple of people have asked about numbers of kids on the free and reduced price lunch program in the schools in the District. I wasn’t able to find exactly those numbers on the California Department of Education website, but I was able to find something close in the API data files. Keep in mind that because this is API data it’s a subset of the total population (i.e., only those kids who took the API test last year). Also, remember that the API data is “self-reported”, and is known to suffer from inaccuracies as a result.

    I’ve lumped all the District-operated schools together in one line because the District, for educational and social/emotional reasons, tries to keep all the kids in the Tinsley program at two schools.

    District-run schools CLC
    % students on free lunch program 5.4% 0%
    % students deemed socioecon disadvan. 6.6% 0.4%

    I think the CLC free lunch number rounded off to zero at the one significant digit level, which is what’s in the datafile. I’m pretty sure there are 1 or 2 or 3 kids on the program at CLC.

    I included the “students deemed socioeconomically disadvantaged” metric because it’s related to the question that was asked, but is obviously a slightly different cut at the data.

    • admin says:

      Oops, sorry, the formatting got messed up in the “table”. The first column of numbers is for the District-operated schools, the second is for CLC.

      • Mark says:

        So the district prefers that two schools in the district be used.
        Please let me know which schools these are (Heather and…?), and why the other two are not preferred, and why would Charter be prefered as compared to the other two that are not preferred and why? Not sure I undertand you point or the API data that is somewhat questionable.

        Many Thanks

        • admin says:

          It isn’t that two schools are preferred, it’s that the District believes the interest and well-being of the Tinsley children are best served by having them all attend one elementary school and one middle school. Currently those schools are Heather and Tierra Linda (so that the kids can stay with their Heather classmates as well).

          I think the API data, to the extent it’s accurate, is pretty clear: proportionally fewer socioeconomically disdvantaged kids attend CLC than the rest of the District. It’ll be interesting to see if the actual headcount you get from the District confirm that.

          • Mark says:

            I would be shocked if the data did not bear that out. I remember discussing this exact information with a board member (Eric Van Der Porten) several years ago, (as a Heather parent), when times were good, or at least better than they are now, and there was less in district fighting, (I remember you as an advocate for CLC at that time and admired you for it BTW). I believe that this is really the case as Heather had low historically low enrollment (people did not want to drive up the hill) and thus the space for the OOD kids and thus it made sense for the district and Dr. Wool.
            Eric also discussed with me how the number of kids in the district is essentially a flat number with little to no variance, so I am concerned about this sudden shift of the status quo, is this about money…again? Not sure how I would feel about supporting a measure for parcel tax for the district when the district wants to create spaces for non San Carlos Residents at a San Carlos School. If you want to keep the OOD kids together, why send them to Charter anyway just move more to Heather to keep them together like you say?

  8. admin says:

    This is a reply to Mia, but I can’t post it “in thread” because the nesting is too deep…

    LOL! Talk about an oddball redirect. Nowhere in the posting did I even talk about District or CLC finances.

    If I had to blame any one thing for the California education funding crisis, I’d probably pick a couple of decades of laissez-faire economic theory run amok :).

  9. eileen says:

    One more thing, the audience you end up with at a charter school is self selecting. Just as the majority of parents at Castilleja and Menlo are wealthy, the parents at charter schools are willing and able to put in the time and commitment to keep the school running. At SCCLC, I believe it’s 80 to 120 hours a year and we pitch in for field trips. It’s not for everybody.

    • admin says:

      I understand. But all that means — if one believes as Chris apparently does, that CLC should be more “diverse” — is that one needs to work harder at attracting a broader range of applicant (BTW, CLC does a lot of things already to make it easier for parents to volunteer, which I applaud).

      It can be done. Whether it should be done is up to the school’s leadership, which has to balance a lot of different priorities.

      I just don’t want the District held up as the reason why more progress towards the goal hasn’t been achieved.

  10. admin says:

    This is a reply to Mark, but I couldn’t place it “in thread” because the discussion got too deeply nested.

    No, it’s not about money (at least on the District side; I can’t speak for CLC). And please remember I’m not arguing that CLC should accept more socioeconomically disadvantaged kids. Chris apparently believes that it should…but also believes the District is making it difficult to do what he wants to do. Which is wrong — the District is not the one who made in district students a priority. The state did that. So he should blame the Legislature :).

    The rest of my posting isn’t trying to urge CLC to do more outreach. All I’m saying is that if Chris and the rest of CLC’s leadership want to bring in more socioeconomically disadvantaged kids there are things they can do.

  11. Heather_mom says:

    Chris’ comments seem very politically motivated to me.  I’m sure it’s not politically savvy to be seen as a school that filters out the working class.  But, that’s exactly what SCCLC does with their high volunteer requirements.  And, it seems they’re attempting to redirect blame for this by saying, “I would but they won’t let me.”  CLC doesn’t roll out the welcome mat to these families. And, they don’t come.  No surprise.

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