In Charters, Using Weighted Lotteries for Diversity Hits Barriers
While many of the nation's public schools remain stubbornly segregated by race and income, charter schools are well-positioned to buck that trend: Untethered from neighborhood boundaries, they can draw students from across a city.
But the charter movement—fueled in part by high-profile networks geared strictly toward serving inner-city, low-income students—has mostly fallen short of creating schools that are more integrated than their traditional school counterparts. Even for charters built on a mission of serving a diverse mix of students, it can be hard to balance enrollment, especially in fast-gentrifying urban areas.
To counteract that trend, some charter school leaders and advocates are championing a broader use of weighted lotteries, a mechanism that can give certain groups of students—such as those from low-income families or English-language learners—a better chance of getting into a school. Currently, only a handful of schools use weighted lotteries for this purpose, according to research by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
And although there has been some movement at the federal level recently to encourage the use of weighted lotteries and similar policies among charters, there remain barriers at the state level.
This is the conundrum facing City Garden Montessori School, a charter elementary school in the St. Louis community of Botanical Heights, formerly known for its drug-related violence. To keep a balanced mix of students, City Garden broke with charter tradition and only accepts students from select neighborhoods.
Despite that strategy and its best marketing efforts to attract an array of families, City Garden's leaders are struggling to keep the school's diversity as its reputation grows and the neighborhoods it draws from change.
"There's also a lot of redevelopment happening in the neighborhoods that we're serving," said Christie Huck, the school's executive director. "Also, because of our success, we came more on the radar of white, educated, more-affluent parents [who] are actually choosing our neighborhoods to move into."
These forces are reshaping the student body. This year's kindergarten class is about one-third non-white, compared to around 50 percent in previous years and in the upper grades, said Huck. To blunt that trend, City Garden started to consider a weighted lottery, but found Missouri's charter law unclear on whether such a policy is legal.
Some charter networks and single charter schools try to keep racial and socioeconomic balance in student enrollment. Here’s how some are attempting to do it:
Brooklyn Prospect Charter School
Brooklyn, N.Y. (charter network)
• Offers preference in the school’s admission lottery for students eligible for free and reduced-price meals;
• Gives priority in the waiting list for late admission to transient students who are also English-language learners, who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, or who have a parent who is a member of the U.S. armed forces deployed overseas.
Community Roots Charter School
Brooklyn, N.Y. (standalone charter)
• Reserves 40 percent of its seats for students who live in public housing.
Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy
Cumberland, R.I. (charter network)
• Reserves 50 percent of seats in its admissions lottery for low-income students and balances enrollment from urban and suburban districts.
Citizens of the World Charter Schools
Los Angeles (charter network)
• Gives a weighted preference in the admissions lottery to students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals at some of their schools.
DSST Public Schools
Denver (charter network)
• Reserves 40 to 70 percent of its seats in its lottery system for students of low-socioeconomic status.
Compass Charter School
Brooklyn, N.Y. (standalone charter)
• Gives added weight in the school’s admissions lottery to students eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
High Tech High
San Diego (charter network)
• Gives statistical advantage in its lottery to students who receive free and reduced-priced meals;
• Weights the lottery by ZIP code to draw from a balanced cross section of San Diego neighborhoods.
Larchmont Charter School
Los Angeles (charter network)
• Uses an annually updated algorithm in its lottery system to ensure its population of low-income students matches neighborhood census data.
"A [state] representative basically said, 'You could try it, and then you have to decide what your tolerance for risk is because there might be a lawsuit,' " said Huck.
The school now wants to bring together other charter leaders to lobby the legislature to tweak the law so it explicitly permits weighted lotteries for diversity purposes.
When there is more demand for seats than there are slots available, charters use a general lottery to pick which students get admitted. Such lotteries are blind, meaning every student has an equal chance at getting in. A weighted lottery, by contrast, does just what the name suggests: It uses an algorithm to increase the odds of a certain type of student getting in—it's basically a more high-tech way of putting a student's name into the hat twice.
Similar strategies include setting aside seats in a school for certain groups. These policies are used in a handful of charter schools to give preference to students from military families, low-income families, as well as English-language learners and students with disabilities.
Charter advocates at the national level have been nudging the federal government to make it easier for schools and networks to use weighted lottery-type policies to increase the numbers of racially mixed schools.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education started allowing recipients of competitive grant money to use weighted lotteries to give disadvantaged students a leg up on admission, as long as schools could prove the policies were permitted under their state laws. Congress' recent overhaul of the main federal K-12 law eased the restrictions even further—at least on paper.
But it's state-level policies that most directly impact how charter schools operate. Schools oftentimes don't use weighted lotteries, said Halley Potter, a fellow at The Century Foundation, in part because many state charter laws are unclear about whether policies to shape the demographic makeup of schools are allowed.
A 2015 review of state laws by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that no states prohibit using weighted lotteries to encourage diversity, but more than 20 have charter statutes that are either vague or silent on the topic.
Authorizers, the groups that grant charters, can be another barrier, said Potter.
"One of the holdups is charter school authorizers, since that's a key way that state charter law is interpreted for particular charter schools," she said.
Authorizers, for their part, are still getting acquainted with the ins and outs of using them to promote diversity, said Karega Rausch, the vice president of research and evaluation at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Rausch said that while authorizers' attitudes toward weighted lottery policies are generally favorable, many are still wary about the details of how they work. And, Rausch said, there are charter schools making significant academic gains while serving almost exclusively high-poverty, minority students.
But weighted lotteries can only go so far toward truly integrating a school, others caution.
"There's both this question [of] segregation between schools, and segregation within schools," said Kent McGuire, the president and chief executive officer at the Southern Education Foundation, an advocacy group for better public schooling, especially for children of color and students in poverty. "All too frequently we see kids of color underrepresented in the rigorous or high-fiber parts of the curriculum and more concentrated in the tracks that don't set them up to be as competitive when they transition from high school to college."
There are other tools school leaders can use for cultivating diversity. They can target marketing materials toward the types of students they want to attract, locate their campuses amid racially diverse communities, or offer free transportation—a major barrier for poor families when it comes to choosing a school.
But sometimes these tactics aren't enough, especially in the face of demand for diverse charters, according to Priscilla Wohlstetter, a research professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"The more affluent people, the middle class and above, are at these schools at the drop of the hat," she said. "They are attracted by the educational approach, the anti-bias curriculum, the diversity for democracy's sake."
It's something City Garden can attest to. The school won't give up its mission of serving a diverse student body. Its leaders are now advocating for more affordable housing in the neighborhood to help with that.
"Affluent people want diversity," said Huck, "and low-income people want diversity, so we have to figure this out."
Vol. 35, Issue 23, Pages 1,9