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.