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 common misconception propagated by charter school detractors. However, even when operators entice lottery participation, voluntary entry skews the composition of charter school populations. To truly fix charter school lotteries, give every student a chance.
Instead of relying on voluntary participation, charter lotteries should include every student within a district or zone. Assuming a random method of selection, including all students would provide equal opportunity to win the lottery. Students selected by the drawing would attend a charter school, unless they refuse their placement. Such a fix would maintain the power of school choice, while providing all students a choice.
Current procedures presuppose the existence of family members and advocates who maintain the ability, knowledge, and motivation to choose lottery participation. The need for a lottery suggests many students receive such support. For these overcrowded pools of entrants, lotteries are a fair way to select incoming classes. Yet, for students with advocates too stubborn, overwhelmed, apathetic, or negligent, a lottery offers no chance. Their absence (and loss) is not random.
Four of Long Island's five charter schools held lotteries this month. The five schools include two in Hempstead, and one each in Riverhead, Roosevelt and Wainscott. Together, they have about 2,000 students.
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 educational experiences that yield positive outcomes for students who are disadvantaged. Yet, critics dismiss performance of charters if they serve students who are less underprivileged than their peers at traditional schools. 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 charters tend to focus on meeting the needs of underprivileged communities, segregated student populations often accompany the possibilities offered by charter schools.
Like current policies, my proposed charter lottery fix has trade-offs and drawbacks. Most notably, inclusion of 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 the lottery.
Similarly, my proposed fix does not guarantee equivalent charter and traditional school populations. Non-random factors such as residence, transportation, child care, and parental work could unduly bias school choices. My "opt out" proposal may not compel responses from those who ignore or overlook school choice options. But including all students in the lottery would safeguard against the unequal distribution of non-responders among charter and traditional schools.
Regardless of claims, charter lotteries are anything but random. Although drawings indiscriminately select winners, 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 flyer-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.