Do Minnesota Charters “Skim” the Best Students? Our Analysis Says No

May 17, 2017 • Krista Kaput

Recently, the New York Times published an op-ed that drew a distinction between “vouchers (coupons that let parents use their tax dollars for private schools) and charter schools (public schools that operate outside the usual bureaucracy)”. The article argued that vouchers have generally offered disappointing results, while charter schools have, in many places, provided innovative options for students who have not been well-served in the traditional system.

A crucial difference between the two, which the article clearly stated, is that charters were intended to be open to all, meaning “their success doesn’t stem from skimming off the best students.” While this is the case for the majority of chartered schools, studies from Reuters and California ACLU have found that some charters employ unethical application screening practices for admission, which discourage certain families and students from applying.

Reuters found that several well-known charter networks, like KIPP, use simple application forms that ask only for necessary information like the name of student and parent/guardian, grade, and contact information. However, their analysis found that stand-alone charters, the most common model in Minnesota, are more likely to impose “significant barriers” for admission.

Analysis of Minnesota Charter Enrollment Applications

In order to find out if Minnesota’s charter schools partake in some of the unfair admission application practices Reuters identified, Education Evolving did an analysis of admission applications for the 47 charter schools that received the state’s two highest summative performance ratings—Reward and Celebration Eligible.
Overall, our analysis found that none of the charter school enrollment applications asked for or required the following:

  • Information regarding a student’s report card, test scores, medical records, or disciplinary records
  • Entrance assessments
  • Family interviews
  • Parent and/or student essays
  • Teacher or personal recommendations

Rather, the vast majority of charter school admission applications asked for the most basic information: parent/guardian name, student name, address, and phone number. Additionally, unlike Reuters’ finding that several charter admission applications were “lengthy” and open for only a few hours, the bulk of Minnesota’s charter admission applications were 1 or 2 pages and open for several months at a time.

A Few Red Flags

Our analysis did yield a couple of findings that were troubling. First, one charter school’s enrollment application required the student’s social security number and another required a copy of the student’s birth certificate for all-day kindergarten. Second, only five charter schools offered their application in a language other than English. Finally, two charter schools did not have their applications available on their website.

Despite these findings, Education Evolving concludes that overall the state’s charter school admission applications were not contributing to unethical skimming practices. However, given the importance of this topic, we have summarized some of relevant information in state and federal law with regard to charter school admission enrollment in the sections below.

Charter Enrollment: What’s in Minnesota Law?

Minnesota statute (124E.11) indicates that charter schools must generally be open to all students, and conduct a lottery “if the number of applications exceeds the capacity of a program, class, grade level, or building.” Statute permits charters to limit admission to:

  • Only students within an age group or grade level where a school has openings
  • Students who are eligible to participate in the graduation incentives program
  • Residents of the geographic region where the school is located. However, this can only happen when the majority of the students served by the school are designated members of “underserved populations”

Additionally, among other requirements, charter enrollment preference can be given to a sibling of an enrolled student or to a foster child of that student’s parent. Enrollment preference may also be given to children of staff. However, a charter is not allowed to restrict admission because of a student’s intellectual ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, and/or athletic ability.

Charter Enrollment: What’s in Federal Law?

Federal law also places some restrictions on public school enrollment applications (Privacy Act of 1974 and Plyer v. Doe). In May 2014, the US Department of Education and Department of Justice issued a Dear Colleague letter, fact sheet, and FAQ document that detailed acceptable and unacceptable public school enrollment practices. A couple of the relevant points are:

  • When establishing a student’s age, a school district cannot legally bar or discourage a prospective student from enrolling and attending a school because they lack a US birth certificate.
  • A school district cannot deny enrollment based on a lack of a social security number. If a school requests a social security number, then it must indicate that providing it is voluntary, refusal to provide it will not bar a child’s enrollment, provide a statutory basis for making the request, and explain what it will do with the student’s social security number.

We acknowledge there are more dimensions other than enrollment application practices that contribute to the larger question of whether chartered schools attract a different type of student body. A couple of them are whether or not chartered schools attract families that are more inclined to exercise more choice and agency and if they employ more strict disciplinary policies. Our findings, however, show that one of the most intentional, overt forms of “skimming” with regard to charter school admission applications is not practiced in Minnesota.

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