University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Maybe We Should ‘Weight’…

In The View from the OEP on February 24, 2016 at 12:52 pm


Here at the OEP we have watched a lot of charter school hearings, and we have a suggestion to help alleviate persistent concerns regarding a lack of economic diversity in some charter schools. In addition, there are several things we observed during last week’s Charter Authorizing Panel meetings that we thought were very positive!


Seeking Equity


Being on the Charter Panel can mean making difficult decisions.  Last week, the decision to approve eStem‘s expansion in Little Rock was particularly difficult for many charter panel members.  One of the main concerns was the perceived lack of at educationally disadvantaged students in the school. Ivy Pfeffer said, “I’ve thought about this for a long time…It’s really agonizing….  I believe (eStem’s new) locations will encourage more economic diversity.”  Dr. Eric Saunders agreed, stating “I also have agonized for days regarding our decision.  Each day when I wake up I have the privilege of wearing the hat as a member of the Department of Education, but there are times like today, I wear the hat of a charter authorizing panel member.  But the hat I always wear is that of a father and an educator, who advocates for the best interests of all the children in the state of Arkansas.”


How many economically disadvantaged students ‘SHOULD’ a charter school enroll?


Here at OEP we celebrate schools that are doing a great job educating students.  The idea that some charters are ‘creaming’ students who are easier to educate than the traditional public school students keeps any success the charters are having under a dark shadow. And, of course, the fact is that students and families CHOOSE charters- it is not the other way around.  But, there are likely ways that most charters can do even better at raising interest amongst families of all economic strata.

Indeed, the issue of some charters not enrolling ‘enough’ economically disadvantaged has been raised in Arkansas for years.

In 2015, the Charter Authorizing Panel questioned why the enrollment at Haas Hall did not “appear to be reflective of the students within the geographical area”.

In 2014, the State Board of Education asked similar questions regarding enrollment at Academics Plus in Maumelle. Sam Ledbetter questioned Robert McGill, the Executive Director of Academics Plus, about the lower rates of economically disadvantaged students in his school than in the neighboring district.  Mr. Ledbetter recognized that this was a goal of Academic Plus: to take low-performing, low socio-economic status students and “bring them up and close the achievement gap”.

Mr. McGill responded, “We have taken efforts in recruiting, try to get out and get our name out into the public and recruit.  One of the things we hit was, it’s an open enrollment charter school and we don’t have a weighted lottery. … We can’t do a weighted lottery, we take the students who apply.”


We want more!


Last week, Charter Panel member Stacy Smith also expressed difficulty with the EStem decision because of a lack of economic diversity.  She stated, “The biggest concern for me was the disadvantaged students being served…. I would like to see that population be increased.  I believe it would add to your school.”

In hopes of promoting an increase in economically disadvantaged students, Eric Saunders began to make a motion setting specific targets for increasing percentages of Free and Reduced Lunch student enrollment at eStem, but the staff attorney explained that he couldn’t do that because it is an open enrollment school.

In an open enrollment charter school in Arkansas, all students who apply have the same chance of being selected. For example, suppose 100 students apply for 30 open spots at an open-enrollment charter school. Let’s say 20 of those students are from backgrounds that would make them economically disadvantaged. In a perfectly random lottery, 6 economically disadvantaged students would be awarded a slot, compared to 24 non-disadvantaged students.  When you further consider the impact of possible sibling preference for enrollment on the economic diversity in the school (the same economic status families having multiple students in the school), increasing economic diversity given the current tools seems like a very tall order.  The only way a school can increase enrollment of economically disadvantaged students is by increasing the percentage of disadvantaged applicants.  We believe they attempt to do just this through outreach and word of mouth, but it all comes down to the luck of the draw- if those students get selected in the random lottery.


Our Second Modest Proposal of 2016


Here at OEP we propose allowing a more efficient solution:

Arkansas should allow a weighted lottery.


A weighted lottery would allow open enrollment charter schools to, essentially, give ‘extra chances’ to each at-risk student who applied. Unlike a quota system, students would not be selected based on socio-economic, special education, or second-language status.  The lottery would still be random, BUT disadvantaged students would have a ‘better chance’ of getting selected in the lottery.


Why don’t we already do this?


As then-Commissioner Tom Kimbrell noted in 2014, “We’ve looked at legal ramifications, and there is a state statute (A.C.A. § 6-23-306(14)(C)) that doesn’t allow for a weighted lottery. Federal law does not prohibit.”   In fact, the guidance from the USDOE states  “A charter school may weight its lottery to give slightly better chances for admission to all or a subset of educationally disadvantaged students if State law permits the use of weighted lotteries in favor of such students.”

Some disagree that Arkansas law prohibits open-enrollment charter school from holding a weighted lottery. A different part of the same statute states, “The open-enrollment public charter school may adopt admissions policies that are consistent with federal law, regulations, or guidelines applicable to charter schools;”  A.C.A. §6-23-306 (6)(A).

Given that Arkansas law seems to permit public charter schools to adopt admissions policies that are consistent with federal guidance applicable to public charter schools, and that the US Department of Education’s updated guidance states that weighted lotteries may now be permitted for educationally disadvantaged students, this seems like an easy fix.


Proceed with Caution


Sometimes the best ideas can have unintended negative consequences.  While we think allowing weighted lotteries to be used by open-enrollment charters to increase economic diversity among their students is a reasonable idea, we would object to the Charter Authorizing Panel requiring weighted lotteries for current or future schools. As long as lotteries are fair and transparent, and schools should be allowed to meet the conditions of their charter through whatever means are most aligned with their mission.

In addition, although other states such as Georgia allow for weighted lotteries based on economically disadvantaged students, there may be legal ramifications to implementing such preferences, and the details of how to gather such information and develop an appropriate weighting system would need to be thoroughly researched.

Finally, weighted lotteries are not the only tool available for increasing opportunities for educationally disadvantaged students to attend charter schools.  The enrollment caps for schools could be increased; and/ or additional schools could be opened in key areas.

Here at the OEP, we would like to see Arkansas’ charter schools given access to tools to increase the economic diversity of their students, including the choice to use a weighted lottery. The sooner we do so, the sooner we can stop asking questions regarding why charter schools aren’t more economically diverse, and shift focus back to ensuring that all Arkansas students are getting a great education.


Charter Panel is On The Right Track


There were several positive comments we wanted to make about the Charter Authorizing Panel. When the Charter Authorizing Panel was established in 2013, we hoped it would provide strong leadership as Arkansas charter schools developed.  The Panel is comprised of members of the Arkansas Department of Education who are appointed by the Commissioner.  Last week, Panel members asked charter school leaders insightful and probing questions about a wide range of issues including academic outcomes, finances, transportation, and teacher support.  As very informed education professionals, the charter panel members recognize that each school, including charter schools, is unique.  While willing to consider unique missions and populations, the panel members also know the regulations associated with education in the state and work to ensure that all schools, including charters, are following the rules and providing a quality education to students.

In addition to asking good questions, we were pleased to see that there was no sense of pro-charter or anti-charter perspectives.  Each situation was examined with care.  We applaud how the Panel puts the needs of students first, and provides suggestions and offers support in cases where they have concerns.

Here at the OEP, we hope that the Charter Authorizing Panel will consider supporting a move to allow charters to use weighted lotteries to increase economic diversity in their schools.

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