Do Charter Schools Cherry-Pick Students?

Here is an interesting New York Times story about a student “counseled out” of a charter school in the city.

In 2008, when Katherine Sprowal’s son, Matthew, was selected in a lottery to attend the Harlem Success Academy 3 charter school, she was thrilled. “I felt like we were getting the best private school, and we didn’t have to pay for it,” she recalled….

Matthew is bright but can be disruptive and easily distracted. It was not a natural fit for the Success charters, which are known for discipline and long school days. From Day 1 of kindergarten, Ms. Sprowal said, he was punished for acting out….

Five days later, Ms. Sprowal got an e-mail from Ms. Moskowitz that she took as a veiled message to leave. “Am not familiar with the issue,” Ms. Moskowitz wrote, “but it is extremely important that children feel successful and a nine-hour day with more than 23 children (and that’s our small class size!) where they are constantly being asked to focus and concentrate can overwhelm children and be a bad environment.“

The next week, the school psychologist evaluated Matthew and concluded he would be better suited elsewhere: “He may need a smaller classroom than his current school has available.”

By then, Matthew was throwing up most mornings and asking his mother if he was going to be fired from school. Worn down, Ms. Sprowal requested help finding her son another school, and Success officials were delighted to refer him to Public School 75 on the Upper West Side.

As it turns out, P.S. 75 taught Matthew, who was diagnosed with attention disorder, how to calm himself. He has received top marks with teacher comments such as, “Matthew is a sweet boy who is a joy to have in the classroom.” It just shows that there is no such thing as the “perfect school,” but the best fit for individual students.

But the most interesting aspect of this story is how the charter school was allowed to easily push out Matthew to the traditional public school. Should charters, which receive public financing, be allowed to do this?


45 thoughts on “Do Charter Schools Cherry-Pick Students?

  1. Very interesting

    I would love to read and chat more about this, but I am pressed for time.  Later this week (yikes, Friday already?) I plan to watch my copy of The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman. The sheet they send out with it allows me to make duplicates.  If anyone wants a copy, let me know, or go to their website/FB page.  IIRC, I first heard about this from another MT on FB.  Apologies to the MTer I am failing to acknowledge!

    As it relates to this story, I’m glad to see stories such as this face the light of day.  It appears that charters seek to do what banks and financial institutions do: spread the risk (use public money to fund venture), limit responsibility (play by only those rules useful to them) and privatize the profits (only a limited number allowed to benefit from the final product).

    • Not all charters are the same

      My son’s school is a charter but it’s definitely not for-profit. True, the Montessori system isn’t a good fit for everyone, and I know parents have left after they felt the school wasn’t doing enough for them. But allowing charters provides people with choices they would not otherwise have. At the end of the day, the people in the article got a good education for free–so their first choice didn’t work out. It’s still nice to have choices.

      I agree that we shouldn’t demonize public school  teachers and paint charters as saviors of a broken system, but not all charters are evil either.

      • I don’t mean to suggest charters are evil

        But we do have to acknowledge that only a few taxpayers gain the benefit from that system.  
        Even a school that is not-for-profit creates a final output that is gained by someone, be it in salaries or the education itself.
        Unfortunately, we all know you can’t please everyone, so trying to do so in the field of education seems like a tall order!

        • Not sure I understand

          So because fewer people attend charters, fewer people derive a benefit from them, therefore … what? Does this mean small school shouldn’t exist because they educate fewer students? In MN, charters receive the same funding per pupil as noncharter schools. So the “benefit,” in strictly dollar terms, is exactly the same as at a regular school. Charters are not “the answer” but choice is good.

          Of course it would be nice if we could stop trying to judge the success or failure of a school, teacher, or student based on a standardized test. But I don’t think we have to eliminate choices in a backwards quest for fairness.

          • no, but

            If all the schools are being judged by the same metric we need for it to be a level playing field.  Which means the charters need to be educating a comparable percentage of children with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, ADHD, etc.  Otherwise maintaining the same funding per pupil puts the schools educating the neediest kids at a disadvantage.

            • In MN

              Like in OH, charters receive slightly less per pupil than district schools (like tjb said, it’s a Byzantine formula) and they must provide special services on their own dime. It’s closer to an apples-to-apples comparison than in other states, it seems.

              • They get less here too

                overall and K-8 although charter high schools actually get a bit more than traditional ones. That’s why the alternative project learning high school in our district went charter.

                I don’t disagree that choices are good – my kids are in choice programs. I guess the issue to me is not that they are bad but that it is then unfair to compare them to schools that don’t have attrition because of lack of fit. The neighborhood school has to fit to the kid, the choice program makes kids fit to its model and thus has to deal with a narrower range of needs.

                Our Montessori is within a school that has a neighborhood program so you can’t look at its scores separately, but the immersion has a freestanding school so you can. I’ve heard the principal at the immersion bragging on how their scores were higher than other schools’ which annoyed me because I know they push kids out the door in the lower grades who aren’t doing as well academically. Those kids then end up at the schools she’s comparing to. And then she wants to brag how her scores are better … Well no wonder they’re better. My son has lost 3 classmates this year, all were struggling.

                My younger child goes there, by the way. I saw her talk about this in a presentation to kinder parents.

          • Some thoughts

            I don’t mind charters as a concept, but I regret that they take money from other schools based on a false premise and faulty statistics.    
            (Not to mention the other resources such as: the best students, teachers, a new building, utilities, libraries…it all costs money and human capital).  I don’t consider the concept of  fairness, economic or other,  to be backward.  BTW, even the not-for-profits are usually set up by, or consult with, for profit entities.   Therefore, the term “not-for-profit” doesn’t mean much to me as it relates to education.

            I don’t buy the republican meme about education in this country being broken.  It might not be everything we all want at all times for all kids, but it sure is a pretty fine compulsory system.  It’s worth noting that this particular meme has been a good 30 years in the making.  Years ago, I took a grad class devoted solely to “A Nation at Risk” as well as the other congressional documents regarding its creation/use.  Very enlightening.

            Since Reagan, education has been used by politicians as a football (like so many issues important to women and children), which wouldn’t be possible without first convincing us that the system is broken.  So, I’ll repeat that there are places where serious improvements need to be made (lord knows I’m personally familiar with a few), but the idea that charters, or any other panacea, are the answer just hasn’t been proven.  For my buck, I’d rather see our social safety nets strengthened to mitigate social ills because, if we’re being truthful, we all know the biggest problem with public schools is that they are responsible for social issues over which they have no impact and no control.  

              • Thanks for that recommendation

                If you didn’t see my previous comment, I received a copy of “The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting for Superman”.  I haven’t had a second to watch it (I’m still in recovery from vacation/houseguest back to backs–soooo much fun).  They will send you a free copy, or I can make you one if you like!

            • I think

              If we address poverty, we’ll address “education” problems. But it’s more popular to bash teachers’ unions (for Republicans). I just don’t want to see “our” side start bashing charter schools the same way.

              • You are correct

                Addressing the underlying issues is the elephant in the room.

                I don’t consider it bashing to protect public schools by calling out the privatization effort or pointing out that profits are the motivation.

                Because a school is not-for-profit doesn’t mean money isn’t being made by someone in large quantities.  Most charters are part of a larger group.  If you look into those parent/partner organizations, you usually find the Walton family and other institutions who are in it to drive their financial and social agendas.  They openly tout their media, lobbying, curriculum, software, etc.  They make all kinds of cash on the “tools” they develop to “measure” performance, they make money on “streamlining teacher certification/alternate certifications”, etc.  It’s a big shell game that uses public tax money and relies on weakening the public schools.  

                That said, my own public school is just as suspect, as the new superintendent and principal are part of the questionable “Broad Academy.  

                • So then what?

                  Do we get rid of all charters because some are really evil for-profit private schools in disguise? Does my kid really have to go back to the district school where he gets punished for working ahead in math? Our school district had sponsored my son’s school and was going to authorize them after state law changed (that’s how good the relationship is) but couldn’t get it together administratively in time. So their authorizer is now Audubon Center of the North Woods. You can google it, but I somehow doubt the Waltons are behind it.

                  I am personally so grateful to have a real educational choice. One-size-fits-all can’t exist, and charters can be beneficial and ethical. But it sounds like you don’t believe they can, which is too bad.

                  • And politically, it’s very

                    questionable as to whether all democrats/liberals should be strongly against charter schools.    I live in an urban district.  Many families are literally lining up to leave the inner city public schools.  I have to admit to being a little insulted by constantly being described as being “duped” by big-bad-charter school operatives.  We aren’t all stupid and just leaving perfectly good schools because someone told us they were “bad”.  And, many of us worked for years to improve the public school district…but what does one do when the district resists all efforts?  And we’re talking just the basics here like allowing parents to visit classrooms, getting teachers and other personnel to return phone calls, etc.  Also, a lot of big time issues around race policies, and therefore, it’s no accident that many who are drawn to charters are from the minority community.  In states like mine and yours, we NEED the votes of our inner city residents in order to get democrats elected.  Nothing crazier than adopting attitudes that keep them from the polls.  

                    • I’m in a rust belt city school

                      Our urban school district is really not good.  So I have sympathy for this.

                      I have to admit to being a little insulted by constantly being described as being “duped” by big-bad-charter school operatives.  We aren’t all stupid and just leaving perfectly good schools because someone told us they were “bad”.

                      The only problem is that the first charters to open in the city did just that.  They were for-profits that were questionable and did not fulfill their charters.  They ended up being worse than the bad public schools and the companies that ran them had the mentality of the man running the school for the poor kids in Jane Eyre.  Desks and equipment weren’t delivered to the school in time for it to open and the schools couldn’t serve lunch at first and actually tried serving unheated frozen meals to kids who were about 80% free and reduced lunch students.  We have a couple of decent charter schools now but I am so suspicious of charters.  There are some seriously bad operators out there.

                    • When the charters first started here,

                      it was literally a free-for-all.  Very little oversight, and they were springing up all over the place.  Worst of all, were all the fly-by-night “on-line” schools that were allowed to proliferate under the charter banner.  After Strickland was elected governor in 2006, there was a big pull back on just handing our charters so easily, and I think that it’s a more responsible process here, now.  And yes, this does mean that many of the charters have grouped together under management services, but, over all, they are doing better and those that aren’t performing are being closed.

                      I think all of it is a response to an old, out dated public system that has refused to budge over literally the past 50 years.  And now, sadly, it might be almost too late.  Over at least the past 30 years, people moving out of the city have stated that their primary reason for doing so was because of the schools.  Now, I know this is a layered response, and covers many issues, but now, at least, there is some choice for those of us who have decided to stay.  Don’t get me wrong…there is still a bit of the “buyer beware” need to be very careful, but a good majority of the charters operating here now are quite decent and in all honesty, in some areas of the city, the “buyer beware” attitude had better be adopted about the public schools.  I would never, in a million years, send a less than white middle class child to some of these schools.  I’ve heard too much regarding the down right lack of regard that these children are held in.  

                  • No, I believe they can work

                    for a select number of cherry picked students.  I doubt your school would cover the cost of a professional who can do special g-tube feedings, colostomy bags, or change infusions for a variety of needs.   What about children on chemo or with serious heart defects?  Can they attend safely? What about children who require a one on one aid, ESL, speech or language services? (Believe it or not, my local public school does that On days when I’m in clinic, there is also an R.N. available and a special needs nurse for the kids with g-tubes, etc).   I know they say they can take them, and they are obligated by law/contract to procure various funding sources for them, but do they?  My experience is that they just don’t take them. Or they scare them out, as in the instance we’re discussing.

                    I know it rubs folks the wrong way, but the charter industry requires a number of services which, regardless of profit or motive, still involve the transfer of money and the necessity to protect turf.  Here is what Audubon provides, from their website, since you offered:

                    The Audubon Center has committed itself to authorizing charter schools that have recognized the importance of experiential and environmental education. In addition to providing oversight of the schools’ educational outcomes, finances, and operations, we also collaborate with our schools by offering trainings and curriculum resources.

                    An annual retreat to connect to other schools that have similar goals,
                    Connections to the state organizations that are committed to charter school success,
                    The option of graduate training and residential experiences that are tied to the schools mission
                    A group of experts who can help the schools overcome obstacles and develop projects that will be successful and significant

                    Again, I don’t mind the idea of charters, but I don’t think it’s OK to compare them financially.  They don’t serve the same population and, like it or not, it’s a business with a model/mission to give a few kids a different/better/specific experience.

                    I think all children deserve a high quality (dare I say, FAPE) education.

                • Also

                  Not-for-profit and nonprofit are different, as I’m sure you know. My son’s school, and it’s authorizer, are nonprofit.

                • it’s different here

                  We have 2 successful charters, one chartered through the local school district and one through the county. The money seems to be handled differently — the district charter receives special ed services from the district (though not at the level a student would receive at a district school even though it’s specified on the IEP), but the county charter has to pay all special ed costs from their general operating budget. They are both independent non-profits and clean organizations from everything I can gather.

                  When my DS was a preschooler I seriously thought about trying to start a charter in my town. The opposition I ran into was not from the local school district, it was from the local realtors who were afraid that if we had a really good school, lots of Chinese would move in and change the town’s character.

                  I’m curious about the Broad Academy. One of our top-5 supt. candidates dropped out after the candidates’ names were released. 3 board members were not going to support her because of her connection with Broad. What are your thoughts on it? We ended up with someone who has had no direct involvement with our district which I see as a huge plus, since I am fervently hoping he will takes names and kick a@@.

                  • The Broad Academy

                    Near as I can tell, it seems like the education industry version of how national lobbying efforts and government work in a circular fashion.  A person attends the Academy, which helps place them in a school or system.  Then, when they leave the job, they make money on speaking fees, training/seminars and, what I call The Biggies, consulting and lobbying (working on legislation guaranteed to keep the cycle going).  

                    I’m sending more detail in an email.

  2. Our charter school

    Has a deal that, if by Nov. 1, in meeting with the parents & the school, it is decided that the child is not a good fit, the parents agree to withdraw the student. It’s worded pretty vaguely, but I’m sure this is what we are talking about. I’m open to the possibility that the school may not be a fit for DS, but I hope it will be more our decision than the school’s.

    Then again, if your kid is in a school that’s not willing to work with the child, it probably is a bad choice, and arguing that they should do more will not be heard or appreciated. But if they’re accepting public money, perhaps they should be required to make the same efforts that public schools do.

    • There are some states

      where money for attendance is determined by a certain date.

      Obviously, in that case, the optimal strategy is to keep the kids past the attendance count date, but counsel them out before standardized test day.

  3. I think it might be better

    if rather than pretending it didn’t happen, if we embraced the idea that charters are going to cherry-pick in certain ways, expect it, and plan for it.

    It’s totally fine with me that some kids aren’t going to be up for a 9 hour school day. It’s probably right for the kids educationally that the kids who thrive stay there and the kids that don’t go elsewhere. But, then we lie to ourselves when we say, “Hey, the charter keeps only the kids who fit best with their program and golly gee, look how great their test scores are. The public school, with their rejects, has lower scores, which OBVIOUSLY means that the public school teachers are slackers.”

    If we can give up the competitive, cutthroat, zero-sum-game philosophy that is coming from outside ‘reformers’, and instead find a school that works best for every child, this would all work much better.

    Philosophically, if I were asked to approve a charter school, my first dictate would be to do no harm. That is, as long as the charter doesn’t harm the education of kids (those who go and those who stay), I’m happy to see them. Even if it means that the kids at the charter get advantages, that’s a net gain for the community as a whole.

    • I could live with that, too

      What rubs me the wrong way is the faulty comparison between apples and oranges as well as the subsequent underfunding and defunding of public schools.  

    • exactly

      If we’re using a “best fit” model, charters are an excellent idea.  What can possibly be better than a diversity of educational options to suit different children’s learning styles?  But under a competition model, in which only test scores matter, charters hurt the “performance” of hard working schools and teachers simply by luring good students away.  So I can see why teachers’ unions would oppose charters under an adversarial system.  

      Given their ability to cherry pick and counsel out challenging students I’m actually surprised charters don’t score better than they do.  

      • Cherry picking

        Not sure about CA but in MN it’s a lottery system. No cherry picking. And charters are required by law to accept and provide reasonable accommodations for everyone. And they do a lot of it on their own dime. I don’t think all charters are really evil for-profit private schools in disguise. Many of them are actually founded by good people with a strong belief in education.  Our school district has actually had a really great relationship with my son’s charter school. So I know it can be done, if, like you said, it’s not a competition.

        • Same in Ohio.

          They are required to take students either on a first come/first serve basis or by lottery.  Magnet schools or programs within the public school districts are so required, too.  As far as I’m concerned, this is superior to states or cities like NYC that allow “invitation only” schools within the public school district.  Schools who’s purpose is it TOO “cherry pick” pupils.  

          And in Ohio, charter schools actually get a little bit less per pupil than the public school districts.  It’s a totally byzantine formula, but in the end, they do end up with less.  Sadly, there is a tension between the charters and the public district in the city.  However, they are providing a needed service.  We can complain all we want about how every one should just attend districted schools, but I will tell you what happens with that…people MOVE or send their kids to private schools.  Yeah, so now, people do charters.  If our large urban districts were more open to truly more open enrollment programs between schools within the district, there might not be the need for charter schools.  Like it or not, the generation of parents who agonized over choosing an OB, a peditrician, or a day care center or provider are not going to just sit back and send their kids where they are told and where they have little or no leverage to effect change if they think it needed.  That is just the way things are.  By not embracing any kind of choice at all, urban districts are only harming themselves.

          • It seems like in Ohio

            you could benefit from a funding situation where the money follows the child instead of being strictly drawn from local funds. Then, it would not be such a big deal if a student was attending school in a different district.

        • no cherry picking on admissions

          Admission is always by lottery here I think, though priority is offered to sibs, and in a bilingual school language can be a priority criterion.  The cherry picking is done by counseling out, just as it is in private schools.  Maybe weeding is a better term.

          Counseling out needn’t be wrong – changing schools is often in a child’s best interest.  When a child is having difficulties at our immersion school, moving him to a native language environment is an obvious suggestion since that removes the strain of a second language.  Is it counseling out to propose that?  If one of my kids had not been succeeding the school would still work to accomodate him but I suspect I’d switch him to an english school before second grade.  It is likely that our school in this way reduces the number of children with a range of needs – whether by design or by default, I couldn’t say.

        • Even when there is a lottery

          there is plenty of evidence that the kids who apply for a lottery always do better than kids who don’t, regardless of whether they are accepted to the charter or not. Merely applying says that the parents care about education and have the resources and interest to get them to a different school every day.

          And, of course, the kids that don’t thrive in the new environment go back to the neighborhood school.

          There are some great non-profit, grassroots charters out there and I am not anti-charter. I just think we need to be very clear on what they are and what they do and not use them to bludgeon the neighborhood school.

          • ITA

            The mere fact your parents investigate schooling options for you gives you a head start. For this reason, I think general admission public schools probably need slightly more money per student than charters. (they do get slightly more money than charters in MN). Since I attended mostly Catholic schools growing up, I really understand the apples-to-oranges comparisons people and politicians like to make. Like, why can Catholic schools educate kids so much cheaper?? Well, cause they don’t pay nuns shit, for starters.

  4. Not noticed that here at all.

    Only condition would be kids with severe behavioral problems.  Charter schools can expel them…and in Ohio, if a child is expelled from any school, it carries over into all others, including private schools, I believe. My son has received a few special services through the couple of charters that he’s attended.  Nothing big…just some speech therapy as well as some accommodation for writing difficulties.  There are children who receive far more.  In fact, there are  many special needs children in our local charters because they receive more prompt service.  I’m not blaming the public school system…it’s just a question of their being so overwhelmed.  There’s often months’ long waiting list for students to even be evaluated with even longer waits for actual services.

    Now, all that said, if one believes in charter schools because of the ability for parents/students to find the best “fit” in education, well, I suppose I see no harm in the suggestion that maybe one particular school might not be best for one particular student.  I would consider it honest.

    I also have the dubious distinction of being a parent of a child who the local public school wanted to “fire”.  It was all about me and  I was told that there was a whole campaign in place in order to get me to move my children.  One teacher, who I had trusted with several of my children, actually told me that I needed to go elsewhere as she wasn’t comfortable teaching my child.  When I asked about a transfer to another classroom, she nixed that, and even went so far as to say that she’d made sure that none of the public schools near us would accept him, either.  When asked what my options might be, she smirked and said we could either homeschool or go to a private school.  This was before charter schools.

  5. I think this is exactly why charters and privates

    can “do better” than public schools, and why it is always apples and oranges to compare public schools with privates/charters.  “Competition” is false if one set of schools has to take everyone with learning differences, behavior problems, kids who are emotionally disturbed, etc, and the other set of schools can take whoever they want.

    This is what bothers me about the whole voucher argument — public schools are required to educate everyone and while charters/privates can take whichever kids seem to do well in their environment. It’s no surprise which group can be more “successful”.

    • Is that true?

      In MN, public charters are public, and spots are awared by district-supervised lottery.  I take it it’s not the same in TX?

      • They have to take everyone

        But do they have to keep everyone? That’s what I’m unclear on, especially given the “small print” on the Nov. 1 deadline with DS’s school.

  6. That’s some big time cherry picking

    A 9 hour day is very long.  I would be willing to bet that many kindergartners who do not even have diagnosable disorders would find that to be way too long of a day.  This school is set up to only appeal to a very small portion of students.

    How many families with higher SES would choose to send a young child to a program that is that long?  Most of us would want or need some serious compensation for working 9 hour days.

  7. Not surprising

    I’ve seen it happen many times in our district’s choice, non charter programs so I’m not surprised at all if charters do it too.

    It’s tough on the families getting pushed out although it does seem that if they don’t want your kid maybe it’s best he/she is elsewhere anyway. But that doesn’t mean they will want him/her in the new school either; that one may just have less ability to offload the child.

  8. My take on this

    So my daughter with Down syndrome is wonderfully thriving in a fully inclusive 7 generations charter school. Naturally, I’d send Zoe who has autism there too – for a NUMBER of reasons, right?

    The pushback came NOT from teachers or aides or staff, who are amazing and already have kids with ASD but from administrative head of special ed (who IMO doesn’t even really like kids). She’s already disregarded us in many things about Zoe and we are ticked.  

    That said, we’ve been told COUNTLESS times that it is OUR decision to decide where Zoe goes, and their job to make it work. She, like Amelia, will have a one-on-one aid.  Everyone else seemed receptive, so I’m not sure if it’s this one person – who BTW made me think my older daughter was doing poorly. (She’s not – she’s not at grade level, has an IEP, but keeps up with the class and contributes in and partakes of all major activities.)

    This school is not-for-profit, and maybe it’s my state, but ALL the officials at both schools and my aides told me it’s my choice.  Their lottery system seems clean.  Zoe got in just fine, so it should be an interesting school year. I don’t believe that a charter should be “selective” – just my 2 cents. Sorry I have strong feelings, and with the rise in kids with disabilities, this is the future. “Cherry picking” must go out the door.

    I do, however, realize that success rates are affected and a new school in a poor economy can suffer.  We are hoping not to be totally toasted by cuts, but we do have lots of local, organic community backers too.  AND I am open to sending Zoe to public if need be – they have a comprehensive spec ed program, billed as inclusive but it’s anything but, so I’m leery.

  9. a couple recent news pieces:

    L.A. Unified charter school teacher turnover is about 3 times higher than for teachers at regular public schools. The research doesn’t answer why or how it affects students. I’d hypothesize that a lot of charters (such as KIPP schools), freed from union rules, exploit their staff who in turn burn out. Previous research has shown that sustained teacher-student relationships improve educational outcomes.

    Off the beaten trackcharter schools in California. At one, the curriculum is strictly standardized test prep and the principal calls minority students “darkies.” Their scores are fabulous, so I guess that’s okay?

    • Ho. leee carp

      “darkies”? ick!

      We have some KIPP schools nearby, but I don’t know very much about them.  But, I once heard some people rave about how the charter teachers are “willing” to spend their own money on supplies, be available to kids by cell phone at all hours, and perform various other tasks that we wouldn’t dare ask of professionals in any other industry.  

      • KIPP places unreal

        demands on their teachers, just as you describe. It’s a very long teaching day, something like 7:30 – 5, and to then be constantly available — there is no downtime.

        I had a conversation with a very turned-on teacher one Fall; she resigned soon after. I don’t know if there are KIPP charters in LAUSD but I wouldn’t be surprised if they or schools with similar labor relations were at the root of the high turnover rates.

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