I recently read a great AJC article by Maureen Downey entitled “Do charter schools seek out easier-to-teach students?” In the article, Downey cites a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research to discuss this idea that charter schools are less responsive to emails from parents of students with special needs, poor behavior, and low prior academic achievement.
While this study does not claim that charter schools “cherry pick” their applicants per se, it shows the multiple barriers that exist between enrollment in a charter school and potential applicants.
Charter schools cannot be viewed as the ultimate solution to problems with the local schools.
Now, before you think that this is just another charter-school bashing article, I want to say that I serve on the board of PATH Academy (a DeKalb charter school with a lottery and a separate governing board) and I send my daughter to a DeKalb theme school (a public school with a lottery yet without a separate governing board).
Obviously the theme school is working great for our family and hundreds of others, and families at PATH Academy love their charter middle school.
So why isn’t this a good enough solution?
Well, I’ll give you 5 local examples that demonstrate the reasons why “more school choice” cannot be the solution to the problems with the local schools. These examples will show the additional barriers to charter school enrollment while also underscoring the fact that an over-reliance on charter schools undermines local schools and weakens our communities.
Example 1: School choice affects the fabric of the neighborhood.
For my family, we had to decide between Oakcliff Traditional Theme Elementary (entrance via lottery) and Cary Reynolds Elementary (no lottery). Because Cary Reynolds didn’t offer childcare after school, because it’s overcrowded by 200-300 students, and because the building is in a state of severe disrepair, we decided to enroll our daughter in the Oakcliff lottery.
Luckily, she got into Oakcliff. However, that didn’t change what was happening at Cary Reynolds.
It still doesn’t offer aftercare, it’s still overcrowded, and the building is still dilapidated.
Even though we have some neighbors whose children attend Oakcliff, many of our neighbors’ children attend Cary Reynolds. Unfortunately, our kids don’t know each other as well because they attend different schools. While it’s not a major division, it does exist, and that division becomes more emphasized as children grow up.
And we aren’t just contending with kids going to Oakcliff instead of Cary Reynolds. Instead of sending kids to Sequoyah Middle School, we have residents sending their kids to Kittredge Magnet School, PATH Academy, GLOBE Academy, or Chamblee Middle School. Those are just the public school options — not to mention the private school options. Then there’s high school — some attend Cross Keys High School, some attend Chamblee Charter High School, and some students attend private high school.
Ideally, the majority of students would attend the local schools and grow up together. When the local schools are viewed as “struggling” or “failing,” this affects the way neighbors interact and, in a way, it splinters the neighborhood, allowing for division and another layer of stratification. And sometimes people just leave altogether.
Example 2: New residents with school-age children still may not move here.
Proponents of charter schools say that it can “improve the neighborhood.” While it might retain residents who might have otherwise moved, it cannot successfully attract new residents in the way that strong local schools can.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who has been looking to move to the Doraville neighborhood, but she really only wants to move here if she knows her two children will be able to attend Oakcliff Theme School.
The problem for her and other prospective residents is that families can only apply for the Oakcliff Theme School lottery if they live in the Dresden, Cary Reynolds, or Pleasantdale elementary school attendance zones. You can’t apply unless you currently live in those zones.
This friend who wants to move here might do so in March or April 2019, but even then, she will not be able to enroll her child in the local DeKalb school choice lottery until next January. Because school choice lotteries occur in January/February, families who move into a district cannot participate unless they do so before the lottery.
Extending this particular example out a bit further — even if my friend moves here in March 2019, there is no way of knowing whether or not her children will get selected for the school choice lottery during the January/February 2020 cycle, so this family will then have to make a decision: move into the neighborhood and be willing to send their child to the local school, or find another neighborhood. At this point, they are still undecided.
In this way, the traditional local schools — not the choice (charter or theme) schools — influence who moves to a neighborhood.
Example 3: Promotional material for choice schools is often only in English.
The population of students attending charter schools who are identified as English language learners (ELLs) is about 10% (or 4 million) while the percentage of ELLs in the traditional public school is 13% (or 5.2 million). However, there is another interesting statistic: 22% of the almost 40 million students in the U.S. come from households where English is not the primary spoken language. This obviously impacts which families are going to know about the school choice options in their neighborhood, especially if promotional material is not in-language.
Even in a neighborhood that includes people from all over the world, there will be many parents who might not even know about the different options due to their primary language. When I see information about charter schools, charter school expos, or enrollment deadlines, they’re almost always in English – in DeKalb and elsewhere in the state and country.
I also think about how the school district websites are not especially easy to navigate – for both native English speakers and English language learners. To even get to the website tab about charter schools takes some work, and for many ELLs, this simply won’t happen.
For example, in DeKalb, when you place the website in Spanish or any other language, the promotions about charter schools/school choice are still in English.
And for those parents who know to click “Parents,” and then “Student Resources” and then “School Choice,” the screen it takes you to is in English – and there’s no option to translate that page. This isn’t to denigrate DCSD for doing something horrible; this is simply an example of the types of barriers that are occurring locally but also nationally.
Additionally, the local public schools have no reasons to promote the local or state charter schools, so often information does not get sent home with students. (This is one of the reasons the nonprofit I work with — Los Vecinos de Buford Highway — conducts dinners in many apartment complexes and homes in order to do effective outreach in language and to individually walk through the application process with parents.)
The effect this can have on a neighborhood is relatively obvious: the families that are more well-versed in the system and the language will, generally speaking, continue to be the majority of families that enroll their children in school choice programs and lotteries (unless, like DeKalb PATH Academy, they do extensive outreach to the underrepresented populations and provide bus transportation).
Example 4: Transportation to school choice options precludes many families who don’t have the ability or option to drive their kids to and from school every day.
As I’ve written before, transportation is a huge barrier to students attending school choice programs. Most charter schools do not offer bus transportation to-and-from school, and many of them do not offer vouchers to be used on local transit options or taxis/rideshare.
Here is an excerpt from what I’ve written before about this topic:
Even for households with cars, you need a parent or guardian who has the time to drive. With approximately 40% of Georgia’s children living in homes with only one parent, this time commitment is a significant burden. See http://spotlightonpoverty.org/states/georgia/. Even if a single parent wants to commit the time, effort and travel costs of driving, doing so may not be an option if the single parent works retail, shift work at a factory or has another type of job where schedules are variable or don’t line up with school hours.
Heck, my family has two cars and two parents that share driving responsibilities for day care, and scheduling all of the pickups and drops offs can already be a logistical nightmare. Luckily we have four grandparents and many friends and neighbors with cars who can help us out in a pinch. These are all privileges that my family is fortunate enough to enjoy, but I believe our education policies should strive to provide equal access to educational opportunities regardless of a family’s situation.
Here is a picture of how different the demographics can look for a charter school that serves the same county. One offers bus transportation and the other does not.
Again, to reiterate the main point: options that require students to provide their own transportation does not solve any issue with local schools. Not having school-provided transportation often separates the less affluent from the rest of a neighborhood, and our communities and schools really don’t need any additional barriers – there are enough to overcome already.
Example 5: Charter schools can increase traffic on local surface streets during the school year.
As you all might know, traffic increases can be significant during the school year. With a charter school, traffic increases even more on surface streets. Instead of simply having buses picking up children (and a minority of parents opting to drop-off/pick-up in their own personal vehicles), charter schools increase the number of families required to provide transportation to these school, increasing neighborhood traffic surrounding the schools, and overall surface-street traffic congestion.
Conclusion: School choice should offer something truly unique (e.g. Tapestry Charter School, which focuses specifically on meeting the needs of students with special needs or the GLOBE Academy, which is a dual-language immersion school or PATH Academy, which is committed to serving immigrant and refugee students) and, when created, should make a firm commitment to reducing barriers to entry. They should not serve as the replacement for local schools as this leads to continued divestment in these original, neighborhood schools.
While it might be difficult to achieve, the strongest communities have strong local schools that promote community-building and collaboration between families, residents, and city officials, especially on issues such as eSPLOST, school programming (i.e. after-care) and Safe Routes to Schools. We have to be ready to do the incremental and intentional work to get there.
In the next couple of posts, we will discuss how we have such an opportunity with the construction of the new school in Doraville and with the necessary redistricting it will trigger.