Charter Schools and Backfill: The Debate We’re Not Having

A new report by a Harlem-based parent advocacy group calls on New York City charter schools to reduce their long waiting lists by “backfilling,” or admitting new students whenever current ones leave. The report from Democracy Builders estimates that there are 2,500 empty seats in New York City charter schools this year as a result of students leaving and not being replaced the following year.

It’s a deeply divisive issue within the charter sector. When transient students (those most likely to be low-performing) leave charter schools and are not replaced, it potentially makes some charters look good on paper through attrition and simple math: Strugglers leave, high performers stay, and the ratio of proficient students rises, creating an illusion of excellence that is not fully deserved. Charters should not be rewarded, the backfillers argue, merely for culling their rolls of the hardest to teach or taking advantage of natural attrition patterns.

Fair enough, although there’s a distasteful, internecine-warfare quality to all of this: Charters that backfill resent the praise and glory heaped upon those who do not, and seek to cut them down to size. Traditional schools hate them both.

Some disclosure is needed here. When I’m not at Fordham, I’m a senior adviser and teacher at Democracy Prep Public Schools (DPPS) in Harlem, which actively backfills. The leading pro-backfill proponent and primary author of the report is my friend and close colleague, DPPS Founder Seth Andrew. That said, I have serious misgivings about pushing charters to leave no seat unfilled.

Charter operators already have powerful financial incentives to backfill. Empty seats mean fewer dollars. If savvy CMOs decide that they’re better off limiting backfilling, or foregoing it altogether, they must have a pretty good reason. And those reasons abound. Moreover, the entire point of charter schools is operational leeway, the ability to innovate and act in the best interests of the children they serve. The regulatory impulse, however well-intentioned, is anathema to the very idea of chartering.

Consider, too, that Randi Weingarten seems to like the idea. “Charters that get public money should be held to the same requirements and standards as traditional schools,” she tweeted Sunday. If the head of the AFT is trumpeting backfilling, that says something.

Implicit in the backfilling clash is another debate over the role of charter schools in our education system. One vision is of “all-charter districts” like New Orleans, which would take on the obligations of a district, such as serving every child and allowing them to enter at any time. Or you might prefer a more traditional role for charters as alternative schools with greater flexibility and freedom, not necessarily having to be all things to all children. The backfilling debate is something of a proxy fight between these very different visions for charters. Are they a replacement strategy for disappointing schools and districts? Or are they closer to a poor man’s private school? The problem is that charters have been promoted by some as the former while functioning as the latter.

The charter movement has long sold itself as a public schools movement. The sector’s less sober members beat up on traditional schools and districts for “failing our children” and encourage them to emulate charters that are effective with the “same children.” It’s effective, tub-thumping rhetoric, but it elides the myriad ways large and small in which charters are simply not the same as traditional public schools—at least those that deal with the hardest-to-educate students.

Charters—even those that backfill—can exercise much greater control over their student population than most neighborhood schools. They start with parents engaged and motivated enough to enter a lottery. Next come more stringent discipline, higher promotional standards, and refusal to take transient students except at designated entry points. Finally, there’s the “nag factor,” which can wear down students and parents who are not fully onboard with a charter school’s culture or code of conduct. Eventually, those hardest to reach and teach leave of their own accord. They needn’t be “counseled out.”

Let me quickly add that there’s nothing sneaky or nefarious about any of this. I can think of no reason why engaged and motivated students from low-income families should be denied the ability to attend school alongside other engaged and motivated students. Indeed, this is a fair facsimile of what it’s like to attend a district school in a more privileged community. Middle class families—place-bound; not highly mobile—wall themselves off within the educational equivalent of gated communities through attendance zones, selective schools, and district lines. If a child struggles academically or behaviorally, alternative programs and placements (both public and private) are easy to find. Public schools in affluent communities “backfill,” but when mobility is low and the kids who come in are on grade level, it’s simply not a significant issue.

The Democracy Builders report argues leaving seats empty is a “moral issue.” Is it? “Why do the better off get to have stability in their schools, but poor parents aren’t allowed to self-select into such a school?” one prominent charter advocate recently asked me, framing the matter bluntly. If the goal is to get as many low-income kids college-ready as possible—and if limiting backfill creates conditions that increase their number—isn’t that desirable?

Fair-minded people, even those who view schools through a social justice lens, might agree that it is desirable. Many have. But that’s simply not the argument the charter sector has historically made. “We have to be upfront about what we are and what we are not, how we are similar to district schools we compare ourselves to and how we are not—as well as agree that we can never be a replacement strategy as a result of that because we have no solution for naturally high rates of mobility [among] poor kids,” observes my charter advocate friend.

The absence of this kind of candor among CMOs, advocates, and cheerleaders forces charters to play the “we’re better” game with traditional schools and the “our metrics are more valid” game with each other. A more sound approach might be to let authorizers decide whether to encourage backfilling if a local district is starved for quality seats, or greater differentiation in offerings and evaluations when a more robust local charter sector warrants it.

For now, the backfill debate represents the charter movement’s rhetorical chickens coming home to roost. If you say long enough that you’re public schools succeeding with the same kids, sooner or later you’re going to be forced to play by the same rules. If you replicate the conditions of underperforming traditional districts, you should also expect to replicate their results. The push for backfill can only hasten the day when charter schools offer a distinction without a difference; a second flavor of bad. Perhaps it would be better to acknowledge that traditional public schools who complain that they work with the hardest to teach are correct, praise them mightily, and reward them handsomely when they do it well.

“We can be who we in fact are and be upfront about it. We can change what we are to be like traditional district schools,” concludes my charter source. “We cannot be who we are and pretend to be something else.”

– Robert Pondiscio

This first appeared on Common Core Watch.

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