University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Ensuring Fairness in Charter Lotteries

In The View from the OEP on February 18, 2015 at 11:35 am

cjpgSpring time is beginning to mean charter school lottery season in Arkansas. With 40 active charter schools in the state and more slated to open next year, an increasing number of students and their parents are considering their chances of attending one of these schools. We here at OEP are pleased to have conducted several charter lotteries this spring, and are excited about the transparency, fairness and diversity we witnessed. In hopes of ensuring equal access to these public charter schools all students and parents, we wanted to share our thoughts on best practices to ensure a fair lottery process.

As a refresher charter schools are public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Like traditional public schools, all charter schools are free to attend and are funded with essentially the same federal and local funds as traditional public schools. Nationally, 6.2% of all schools were identified as charters in 2012-13.  Currently, Arkansas has 4% of public schools operating under charters. The most prevalent charter areas are Washington DC (44%) and Arizona (23%). In Arkansas, there are two types of charter schools: District conversion (22 schools) and open-enrollment (18 schools).  District conversion charter schools can draw students only from within their district boundaries, while open enrollment charter schools can draw students from any district.

Students must apply to attend a charter school, and sometimes more students apply than there are spots available.  If more students apply to attend the school than there are slots available, the school must hold a lottery for available spots. There are several rules that ADE applies to charter enrollment practices.  Charter schools are allowed to grant priority enrollment for siblings of students already enrolled in the school and for children of founding members.  Charter

In Arkansas, there seems to be plenty of demand for charter school slots.  At several recent lotteries, there were nearly 4 applicants for each spot, and some charters in the state report wait lists of thousands.  While there is no way to tell if all of these students would actually enroll in the charter school given the opportunity, it seems undeniable that charters are a popular option for Arkansas parents and students.

Charter schools are public schools, and should be accessible to all students.  Some critics of charters, however, have raised questions about whether charters “cream” top students from traditional public schools.  In order to ensure charter schools are truly accessible to all students, there are several best practices OEP recommends regarding lotteries:

1) Get the Word Out:  Charter school enrollment and lotteries can only be as representative as the students who apply.  In order to have the most representative application pool, charters need to widely publicize the application process and lottery.  This means getting the information out into the communities – through word of mouth,  social media, neighborhood organizations, community meetings and even laundromats.  Translate the materials as needed to reach all communities, and be sure to include that the school is free to attend.  Parents and guardians can’t apply if they don’t know about the school, and the responsibility falls on the charters to get the word out.

2) Keep it Simple: Minimize the information required to apply for the lottery.  Offer the applications in different languages, and in paper and electronic formats.  The application for the lottery only needs to include the student’s name, grade they are applying for and parent/guardian contact information (either address, phone or email).  Additional questions regarding priority enrollment are also helpful,  but that’s it!  The less information gathered before the lottery the better – reduces intimidation for parents/guardians and eliminates any possible perception of “cherry picking” students based on information provided.

3) Be Obvious: Include specific information about the process, deadlines and lottery date on the application. Make sure there is no implication that students or parents need to visit the school or meet with school staff prior to applying. Set clear guidelines about when parents/guardians need to accept the spot or have it passed onto another student.

4) Be Transparent: Hold the lottery in a publicly accessible location at a time when the public can attend.  Use a random process to determine if students get placed.  Explain the process clearly to attendees and answer any questions before the lottery begins. OEP uses a random number generator and displays the process on a projector.

5) Be Efficient: Provide an opportunity for parents/guardians of students who are lotteried in to accept the spot immediately after the lottery.  Allowing immediate acceptance will reduce the follow up procedures for the school as well as the uncertainty of parents/guardians.

Through our work assisting charters with the lottery process, we have seen excellent examples of charter schools practicing these best practices.  At OEP, we are glad to see the ADE actively monitoring all charter lotteries and providing information to schools about that process.  Since lotteries only include applications submitted, we recommend ADE also pay careful attention to the application process and how it is communicated to the public.  Expectations regarding advertising of the lottery and availability of applications should be clarified.  Processes for handling and recording student applications is also critical to demonstrate that student applications are handled appropriately.  A centralized application system for all charters could assist schools in maintaining appropriate processes.

To determine the effectiveness of charter schools, it would be beneficial to keep careful records of students who were not selected.  This would allow researchers (like OEP) to compare apples to apples- the academic performance between accepted charter school students and those who applied but were not selected.

We also recommend having an uninvolved third party manage the lotteries.  This adds to the transparency of the process.  If you are interested in having OEP assist you with your charter lottery- please let us know!

Whatever your feelings about the charter school movement, we should all be advocating for transparent and fair charter lotteries like those OEP has seen around the state- these are all PUBLIC schools serving Arkansas students.

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