Fix charter school lotteries to give every student a chance

Teachers and parents met at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn to hold a rally before marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and ending at City Hall. The rally is geared on supporting Charter Schools. (Oct. 8, 2013)
Teachers and parents met at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn to hold a rally before marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and ending at City Hall. The rally is geared on supporting Charter Schools. (Oct. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Agaton Strom

Charter school lotteries are fixed. I am not suggesting operators have systematic ways to populate schools with high-achieving students. For the most part, this is a misconception propagated by charter school detractors. However, even when operators entice lottery participation, voluntary entry skews the composition of charter populations. To truly fix charter lotteries, give every student a chance.

The issue is particularly relevant in NYC, which has 197 charter schools educating 83,200 students, according to the NYC Charter School Center, a support organization. The center says interest is so high that all but a handful have to choose students by lottery.

Instead of relying on voluntary participation, charter lotteries should include every student within a district or zone. Assuming random selection, including all students would provide an equal opportunity to win the lottery. Students selected by drawing would attend a charter, unless they refuse placement. Such a fix would maintain the power of school choice while providing all the opportunity to make that choice.

Current procedures presuppose the existence of family members and advocates who have the motivation to choose lottery participation. The need for a lottery suggests that many students receive such support. For these overcrowded pools of entrants, lotteries provide a fair way to select incoming classes. Yet, for students with advocates too stubborn, apathetic, or negligent, a lottery offers no chance. Their absence (and loss) is not random.

In fairness to many charter operators, the inability of lotteries to select classes of students that are equivalent to local public schools should not unequivocally eliminate admiration of charter outcomes. Many charters provide high-quality education that yields positive outcomes. Yet, critics dismiss performance of charters if they serve students who are less underprivileged or vulnerable than their traditional school peers. In my courses, I challenge that condemnation by asking, “How poor must students be before their educational attainment becomes impressive?” I have similar trouble with detractors who accuse charters of supporting race and class segregation. The accusers cast judgment as charters attempt to meet the needs of parents who must navigate between irreconcilable choices of education and equality for their children. Because they tend to focus on meeting the needs of underprivileged communities, segregated student populations often accompany the possibilities offered by charters.

Like current policies, my proposed charter lottery fix has trade-offs. Most notably, entering all students in a lottery limits the choice of some students. After all, to have the opportunity to make a choice, the student must still win a seat.

Similarly, my proposed fix does not guarantee equivalent charter and traditional school populations. Non-random factors such as residence and child care could unduly bias school choices. My “opt out” proposal may not compel responses from those who overlook school choice options. However, including the entire population of students in the lottery would safeguard against the unequal distribution of non-responders among charter and traditional schools.

Regardless of claims otherwise, charter school lotteries are anything but random. Although drawings indiscriminately select winners from the lot of entrants, their procedures discriminate against the neediest of students. Not every knocked-upon door will be opened, phone call answered, or flier hung upon a refrigerator. For students behind closed doors, lacking a reliable phone number, without a refrigerator, or a flier-hanging guardian, choice was never an option.

To give these students a chance, charter school lotteries need a fix.

Craig Hochbein is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Lehigh University’s College of Education.