Keeping Precious Charter-School Seats Filled

Too many of the schools don’t ‘backfill’ with new students to replace those who move away.

The public charter-school application season in New York and around the country has begun. For the next few months, millions of parents and their children will wait nervously for news about how their applications fared in the random lotteries for charter-school admission. Through lotteries, typically held in April, charters will enroll more than three million students this year, up from less than one million in 2005.

This is great news for families and students. But the charter sector has long avoided a difficult truth: Most charter enrollment policies distort market forces and explicitly limit choices for families at certain grade levels. In fact, most charters squander an opportunity to give the highest-need students access to the highest-quality education by failing to backfill empty seats. Public records indicate that tens of thousands of places remain empty every year. Extrapolated nationally, limited backfill policy denies at least 100,000 additional K-12 students access to open seats that could be available in 2015.

Backfill is the practice of keeping every seat across every grade occupied regardless of student mobility as long as parent demand exceeds supply. As schools lose students—and, over time, all schools do—backfilling means making vacated seats available to new students from a waiting list. Most traditional public schools, unlike charter schools, are required to backfill. When a seat opens up, whether in a sixth grade class in September or a tenth grade class in December, it is filled.

Many charter authorizers nationally allow charter schools to set limited “entry points”—typically Kindergarten, fifth or sixth grade, and ninth grade. Lotteries, which by law are held once a year, pull students for these grades only. Because of space limitations, most applicants don’t end up winning a seat.

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For example, the New York City Charter School Center estimated that parents submitted 212,500 applications for 21,000 available spots last year. Even worse, since so few charter schools backfill, students who weren’t in specified entry grades or who moved to New York midyear never even got a shot.

Charter schools that don’t backfill are choking off an already limited supply of places despite the soaring demand. Between 2006 and 2014, according to our new Democracy Builders analysis, New York City charter schools lost on average 6%-11% of students each year across grades, creating thousands of seats for new students. In 2014, for instance, at least 2,500 seats were freed up in third through eighth grade alone. Instead of filling these seats, most charter schools let them remain empty.

Why would charter schools not want to serve as many students as possible? Perverse incentives. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, there is a relentless focus on a school’s percentages of proficient students, and schools that boast high pass rates make easy media exemplars. Without backfilling, a school can maintain the illusion of success; by maintaining or increasing the absolute number of proficient students while decreasing the number of total students, the percentage of proficient students—who have already had the benefit of charter schooling—is likely to increase.

High-need students who hope to enter a school in a non-entry grade are more likely to be transient, academically behind, homeless, new immigrants or English-language learners, so topping off school rosters with this demographic may hurt a school’s “% proficiency.” Yet these are exactly the students who most need access to high-quality charter schools.

The solution is two-part. First, charter leaders should commit to immediately reform their K-12 backfill policies for the 2015 lottery season. Longer term, charter authorizers or legislators should require policies that free up all available seats for new students. Every single student deserves the opportunity to find the highest-quality education, regardless of when they apply.

Second, we need to play down the significance of percent proficiency as an outcome. Instead, parents and policy makers should focus on the growth of individual student performance over time. Such longitudinal analyses are a more accurate measure of a school’s progress and quality.

School choice takes many forms, whether that means parents signing their child up for the district school down the block, entering a public charter-school lottery, or opting for a private school. If the charter sector truly wants to be a champion of public-school choice, its policies and actions need to prove it by ensuring that no seat is left behind.

Ms. Lyles is the executive director of Democracy Builders, a nonprofit school-choice organization based in Harlem, N.Y., where Mr. Clark is lead organizer.

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