Reuters reports that some charter public schools in Ohio, Illinois, California and Pennsylvania use application processes to screen incoming students.
According to Reuters, an Ohio school used an entrance exam to screen out a third grader. In another case (now under investigation) an Illinois charter public school actually required parents to invest in the company that built the school.
Michigan was not mentioned in the report. However, Michigan forbids charter public schools from screening applicants based on race, gender, religion, disability or test scores. Michigan charter public schools can choose what grades and ages to serve, and the total number of students to enroll.
The Reuters report is a worthwhile read, and a reminder that school officials can try to exploit the educational system at both conventional and charter schools. The difference with charter schools is that they are frequently closed for poor performance or mismanagement. The hope is that the process of holding charter schools accountable will result in the better — and law-abiding — schools continuing to stay open, while the lower-performing schools are closed.
But the article also raises a difficult point. Both school choice proponents and status quo advocates frequently claim that charter and conventional schools provide free and open public education to all. The reality is that both charter public schools and conventional schools can exercise some control over which students can attend.
Charter public schools can limit student enrollment by using their applications or curriculum focus to "set the tone" of the school.
For example, all students at Star International Academy, a high-performing charter school in Dearborn, take Arabic. This focus is a signal to students who don't want to spend time learning that language that Star International is not the school for them.
Having a specific focus isn't discriminatory, but it does signal to prospective students that the school might be a better (or worse) fit. Such variety is an asset: Students will have a better chance at academic success at a school that serves their specific needs. It is unfeasible for any one school to be all things to all students.
Moreover, recent claims that charter public schools "push out" low-achieving students does not hold up to scrutiny. A new Vanderbilt University study of the operations of a large, urban school district found that low-achieving students do not leave charter schools more frequently than other students. If anything, the study suggests that more low-achieving students are leaving conventional public schools.
In comparison to charter public schools, which can advertise to specific student populations, conventional school districts can limit attendance by district boundaries. As Reuters reporter Stephanie Simon put it, "You don't have to write an essay to get into a high-performing suburban school, but you do have to belong to a household with the means to buy or rent in that neighborhood."
Though many Michigan school districts allow in nonresident students, others close their doors to any student who cannot pay tuition, which can be as high as $13,000. This effectively limits low-income nonresident students from attending. This is a form of discrimination. The school district is choosing who to allow in, and the barring of nonresident students frequently seems to have little to do with providing a focused curriculum.
Michigan charter public schools are providing differentiated educational options to students. The end result is a wide field of variety from which students and parents choose. Meanwhile, school officials at some conventional districts are using the combination of district boundaries, housing prices and tuition policy to prohibit students from attending. It's one thing for a school to attempt to provide a tailored education to a specific student population. It's quite another to discriminate by home address.