A Time to Fill: Charters as Public Schools

This week, reformers came out with two contrasting pieces on the debate over charter 'backfilling' -- the practice of filling seats after scholars un-enroll.

The first piece, written by Princess Lyles and Dan Clark of Democracy Builders, argues that all charters should backfill.  The second piece, written by Fordham's Michael Petrilli, argues that charter schools should not be required to backfill.

There are two questions at the heart of this debate. 

  1. What should individual charter schools, left to their own volition, do with regards to backfilling?
  2. What should the government require charter schools do with regards to backfilling? 

I can tackle the first question from RePublic's perspective. In Tennessee, there isn't high funding or long waiting lists. So, almost every charter in our corner of this work backfills every seat they can regardless of their philosophy.  RePublic falls into this category.  We backfill every seat possible, though it's much harder to find scholars for grades outside of common entry points (which is why, like most public schools in Nashville, our eighth grades are smaller than our fifth grades).

But RePublic would backfill regardless of the budget incentives. We believe all kids deserve a chance at a high quality public education.  If we have the space to accept a child, we will.  More importantly, we believe that charter schools are public schools and should welcome, within space constraints, students who move, get bullied, develop a new academic interest, or have any other reason for choosing another option. 

Petrilli says that "culture-building" is a lot harder to do if a school has to backfill:

"Culture-building is a whole lot harder to do if a school is inducting a new group of students every year in every grade. Furthermore, schools that help their charges make rapid gains in their early years will be forced to spend a lot of time remediating new students who enter midstream. That’s why so many solid charters and networks that launch as middle or high schools eventually reach down to start serving students at age four, five, or six. It’s hard to remediate a kid who has already gone through half a dozen years of learning nothing in a dire school."

We can all agree it's hard to remediate kids who come in behind. There are a lot of things that are hard about this work. Does that mean someone else should have to do those hard things? Why should traditional schools be required to take on that challenge but not charters? Under this logic, what else can we justify in the name of culture-building?

From where I sit, pressuring charters to start earlier and/or create strong remediation/differentiation across all grade levels is something all authorizers and legislatures should do. To accommodate students who enroll late, RePublic has adopted innovative differentiation systems (such as daily tutoring blocks, use of personalized learning like Khan Academies, and leveled Book Clubs) and we are considering starting our first elementary school.  We have a long way to go, but view these challenges as central to what it means to be a public school.

That gets to the question at the heart of this debate: what should the government require? Petrilli appears to take a limited view on the role of government.  He argues that charter backfilling is a "tough question" and tough questions should be left to individual schools to decide (this is a parallel to federalism arguments). It's probably safe to say I have a more robust view than Petrilli on the role of government as it relates to tough questions, but I actually don't believe this is a tough question. 

Just imagine what would happen if every school was free to adopt its own policy with regards to backfilling.  Where would a parent go if they move to a new neighborhood or city?  What about a kid who is getting bullied and can't get a school's administration to take action to protect them?  

A likely response to this would be that, in a perfect market system, there would be an economic incentive for schools to begin backfilling. Some will make it their niche to backfill.  But what about the parent who wants to choose a different option than these "niche" schools?  More importantly, New York, the city that is proximately at issue, is not a perfect market system and won't be for a very long time, if ever.

Petrilli ends with a proposal that is really just about what charters claim about their results:

"So here’s a proposal: Eva Moskowitz should stop using proficiency rates to argue that her (backfill-free) schools are better than other charter schools, like Democracy Prep. And Democracy Prep should stop using growth scores to argue that its schools are better than district schools. And everyone should get out of everyone else’s business. Deal? Now, let’s get back to doing the work of educating children."

As a connoisseur of data on rock star networks like Democracy Prep and Success Academies, and a general believer in borderline-unhealthy friendly competition, I am definitely interested in warring claims of quality.  However, the score-keeping should be peripheral to this debate. This debate is about what the role of charter schools should be in providing equitable access to high quality education.