Executive Action I Can Support: Weighted Lotteries for Charter Schools

In his State of the Union address, President Obama promised to use the stroke of his pen to push forward initiatives upon which Congress refuses to act. In the education realm, this is nothing new (see: conditional ESEA waivers) and generally nothing to cheer. But Wednesday morning, the U.S. Department of Education took an executive action that I support strongly, issuing new guidance for the Public Charter Schools Program that will allow charters to use “weighted lotteries” without forfeiting their chance to receive federal start-up funds.

I’ve been making the case for such an allowance for years; Sam Chaltain, Rick Kahlenberg and I did so again just the other day in the Washington Post. The premise is pretty simple: charter schools that want to be socioeconomically diverse sometimes struggle to maintain a healthy balance if they are forced to use a single random lottery. That’s because the best charters often become so popular with middle-class parents that they flood the lotteries and end up taking most of the available seats.

In fact, some of the most successful diverse charter schools, such as the Denver School of Science and Technology and High Tech High, have decided to pass on federal start-up funds so they can use lotteries that achieve their integration goals. Now they won’t have to.

This will also help charter schools, like Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, that seek to enroll more English-language learners or students from other underserved subgroups. (New York charters are required by law to serve a certain proportion of such students, yet Moskowitz was threatened with the loss of her federal funds because she wanted to use a weighted lottery to make it happen.)

All in all, a good show. Here’s the language if you’d like to study it yourself:

E-3a.   May existing grantees weight, or allow charter schools in the State to weight, their lotteries under the circumstances described in E-3?

An existing grantee that wishes to use, or allow charter schools receiving CSP funds to use, weighted lotteries under the circumstances in E-3 must seek approval from the Department to do so by amending its grant application. Requests for approval to use weighted lotteries should be submitted to the Department and include the following:

1) Information concerning the circumstances in which a weighted lottery would be used, including the specific categories of students the weighted lottery would favor;

2) Evidence that –

a) When seeking approval to use weighted lotteries under the first circumstance in E-3, the use of weighted lotteries is necessary to comply with Federal or State law; or

b) When seeking approval to use weighted lotteries under the second or third circumstances in E-3, State law permits such use, which could be evidenced by the fact that weighted lotteries for such students are expressly permitted under the State charter school law, a State regulation, or a written State policy consistent with the State charter school law or regulation, or, in the absence of express authorization, confirmation from the State’s Attorney General, in writing, that State law permits the use of weighted lotteries in favor of such students;

3) Information concerning the mechanisms that exist (if any) for an oversight entity (e.g., the SEA or an authorized public chartering agency) to review, approve, or monitor specific lottery practices, including establishment of weight amounts if applicable;

4) Information concerning how the use of a weighted lottery for a permitted purpose is within the scope and objectives of the approved project; and

5) Information concerning the amount or range of lottery weights that will be employed or permitted and the rationale for these weights.

An applicant for future CSP competitions that wishes to use a weighted lottery should provide the pertinent information about its proposed lottery in its grant application.

-Mike Petrilli

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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