Charter School Application Essay

(By Matt McClain — For The Washington Post)

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says this about charter schools on its Web site:

Charter schools are always public schools. They never charge tuition, and they accept any student who wants to attend. Charter laws require that students are admitted by a random lottery drawing in cases too many students want to enroll in a single charter school. Charter schools must also meet the state and federal academic requirements that apply to all public schools.

A new story about charter schools admissions by Stephanie Simon at Reuters details how the reality of admissions at many charter schools is far different from the above rhetoric. She writes:

Students may be asked to submit a 15-page typed research paper, an original short story, or a handwritten essay on the historical figure they would most like to meet. There are interviews. Exams. And pages of questions for parents to answer, including: How do you intend to help this school if we admit your son or daughter?

These aren’t college applications. They’re applications for seats at charter schools.

These are some of the barriers to charter school admissions that Simon writes about in her story:

* Applications that are made available just a few hours a year.

* Lengthy application forms, often printed only in English, that require student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, teacher recommendations and medical records.

* Demands that students present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.

* Mandatory family interviews.

* Assessment exams.

* Academic prerequisites.

* Requirements that applicants document any disabilities or special needs. The U.S. Department of Education considers this practice illegal on the college level but has not addressed the issue for K-12 schools.

Selective admissions in charters — which aren’t supposed to have them — is one big part of a growing narrative about public schools that critics say show that they act more like private schools, albeit with public dollars.

Another part is the issue of expulsions from charter schools, highlighted by my colleague Emma Brown this recent Washington Post story, which said:

The District’s public charter schools have expelled students at a far higher rate than the city’s traditional public schools in recent years, according to school data, highlighting a key difference between two sectors that compete for the District’s students and taxpayer dollars.

D.C. charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years, while the city’s traditional public schools expelled 24, according to a Washington Post review of school data.

It should be noted that many charter schools do not engage in selective practices.

But many do, Simon found, and operate with little regulation and oversight. For example, she found:

When Philadelphia officials examined 25 charter schools last spring, they found 18 imposed “significant barriers,” including a requirement from one school that students produce a character reference from a religious or community leader.

Charter schools educate about 5 percent of K-12 students in the country, but the sector is growing and gets a great deal of financial and public attention from school reformers. The charter school-dominant Recovery School District of New Orleans is repeatedly praised as being a model for how charter schools can transform a city’s public education system — though those who do the praising ignore the fact that the charters in that district are performing at a very low level. (You can read about that here.)

One thing this latest probe into selective admissions shows is that charter authorizers need to step up oversight.

This is the second in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno),Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the other essays here, here, here, and here.

Supporting charter schools requires tough love. It isn’t enough to create them and let kids attend them. They also need to be run with integrity; their books need to balance; their pupils must be safe; and above all, their academic achievement has to be strong, especially when gauged by student growth.

Some of America’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of its worst. Averaging across all 6,800 of them, some critics declare that their performance is roughly equal to their district counterparts. But such a superficial analysis ignores their variability—the reality that they range from dismal to superb. Let’s look a little more closely.

State variance

A quarter-century in, charter schools are still absent from seven states, and seventeen other jurisdictions have fewer than fifty each. Forty-four states have charter-enabling laws on the books, but these differ so widely that what is possible in one state cannot be accomplished across the border. So it’s no surprise that charter performance differs widely by state. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reported in 2013 that between 2006–07 and 2010–11, charters’ impact on student reading and math achievement varied by as much as 245 learning days per year depending on where the schools were. In Rhode Island, for example, charter pupils gained 108 days in math and eighty-six in reading compared to similar district students. In Nevada, on the other hand, charter goers lost 137 days in math and 108 in reading  

School type

Performance also varies widely by school type. “No-excuses” charters, for example, are characterized by high behavioral and academic expectations for pupils, longer school days and years, curricula geared toward college entry, and robust school cultures. They accept “no excuses” for failure, either by children, teachers, or the schools themselves. The best of them—including KIPP, Success Academies, YES Prep, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools—have done an extraordinary job educating inner-city children, as well as replicating their strategies in networks that can exceed a hundred schools.

KIPP, for instance, has 183 charters serving seventy thousand kids across twenty states and the District of Columbia. Eighty-seven percent of KIPPsters come from low-income families, yet a majority outperform the national average for annual growth across all grades and subjects. Their alumni are 4–5 times more likely than similar peers to graduate from college with bachelor’s degrees. And the Success Academies network in New York City, led by the formidable Eva Moskowitz, now consists of thirty-four schools in four boroughs. When the Empire State adopted the Common Core’s rigorous academic standards in 2014, 64 percent of Success Academy students met them in English language arts—versus 29 percent citywide. Nine in ten were proficient in math, three times the rate across Gotham.

By contrast, “virtual” charters generally yield bleak results. The U.S. contains more than three hundred such schools across twenty-six states, enrolling more than two hundred thousand students. CREDO’s recent analysis shows that, on average, virtual charter pupils achieve 180 fewer days of learning in math and seventy-two fewer days in reading each year than do similar students in district schools. A brand-new study by Civic Enterprise shows that virtual charters also lag far behind in graduation rates.

Community and race

Today’s charters appear to do their best work with disadvantaged youngsters. As University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarkski recently wrote:

In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and non-white, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than public schools.

A 2015 CREDO study of charter performance in forty-one cities found black and Hispanic students gaining as much as thirty-six and twenty-six days of learning in math and reading, respectively. Asian kids, however, saw no gain. And white students might have been better off in other schools: Those enrolled in charters lost thirty-six days of learning in math and fourteen in reading.

One source of this disparity is school type, discussed above. “No-excuses” schools tend to perform very well, at least when it comes to achievement growth. They also tend to enroll students of color at disproportionately high rates. KIPP’s student body, for instance, is 57 percent black and 39 percent Hispanic. And 93 percent of kids enrolled in Success Academies are children of color.

Meanwhile, more “progressive” white families are likely choosing charters with missions that reflect parents’ dislike of traditional curricula and standardized tests. It may be that their kids are doing OK and benefiting in other ways.

Years in school 

Children’s learning seems to accelerate the longer they stay in charter schools. (Perhaps that’s true of all schools.)  CREDO studies indicate that during a charter attendee’s first year, he or she gains, on average, seven days of learning in math—but loses seven days in reading. In year two, however, charter pupils show positive impacts in both subjects: forty-eight more days in math and forty-three in reading. By year four, the gain is 108 days in math and seventy-two in reading. To get the most from charter schooling, it’s pretty clear that the school has to endure and the student has to stick around!


Oversimplified measures of charter impact communicate none of these nuances, which is why they often lead to the misleading conclusion that charters are no better on average than district-operated schools. Parents might wrongly conclude there’s no reason to move their kids from troubled district schools. And lawmakers may mistakenly decide that supporting charters isn’t worth the political hassle. Yet neither judgment is justified. By no means are weak charters places to celebrate, sustain, or attend. But excellent charters can work wonders—especially for kids who need them most. School leaders, charter advocates, and policy makers just have to learn which models work, why they’re effective, and whom they benefit. We’ll tackle these topics and more in later installments.

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