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More Colorado charter schools are using weighted lotteries. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When a highly sought-after charter school in the western Colorado town of Carbondale held its annual enrollment lottery last spring, 52 students were vying for just 14 kindergarten slots.

Seven youngsters, all siblings of students already enrolled at Carbondale Community School, got first dibs. Next up was a group that had never before gotten priority in the school’s 20-year history — kids from homes where English isn’t the primary language.

It was part of an effort by school leaders to help ensure the student body better mirrors the community, where nearly half of students come from Spanish-speaking homes. It also highlights a practice that’s gaining traction among charter schools seeking more diversity: the use of lottery systems that give extra weight to students from underrepresented groups.

Such efforts, both in Colorado and other states, often prioritize students eligible for free or discounted school meals, a measure of poverty. Some target English language learners, students with disabilities, or migrant, refugee or homeless students.

While notable exceptions exist, Colorado charter schools as a whole educate fewer poor, homeless and special needs students than schools statewide. They educate about the same proportion of English language learners.

Source: Colorado Department of Education

Experts say weighted lotteries can be effective in creating more integrated schools, but must go hand-in-hand with other efforts such as a thoughtful school design, strong recruitment and transportation assistance.

“Having a weighted lottery that actually builds diversity into admissions … is a huge tool,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation and a board member of the Diverse Charter Schools Coalition. “It’s not perfect and has to be coupled with those other strategies and refined over time.”

Who’s doing it?

No state agency or advocacy group tracks the number of Colorado charters that use weighted lotteries to expand access for underrepresented groups. Chalkbeat counted at least 20 that do so or have recently cited plans to do so, using information provided by officials from the Colorado Department of Education, the Charter School Institute and Denver Public Schools.

(In Denver Public Schools, 17 district-run schools, many in the city’s affluent neighborhoods, use weighted lotteries to prioritize low-income students.)

Charter schools that use weighted lotteries are sometimes part of networks, as is the case for six schools within the Denver School of Science and Technology, or DSST, family.

Other times, they are single schools with themes such as performing arts or Montessori education. In addition to Carbondale and Denver, these schools can be found in Aurora, Douglas County, Jefferson County, Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs, Archuleta and Durango.

Experts note that some charter schools, because of their location, mission or other factors, already serve many students from historically underserved groups and don’t need weighted lotteries to get there.

Still, officials at the Colorado Department of Education say the number of charter schools using weighted lotteries has increased in recent years. It’s partly because of a 2014 federal rule change that opened the way for charters that get federally-funded charter school grants to use weighted lotteries to expand access for educationally disadvantaged students.

Colorado incentivized the approach by awarding extra points to charter schools that included weighted lotteries in their grant applications. Eight of 23 charter grant recipients in the last two years said they would use weighted lotteries.

Nationally, the use of weighted lotteries to foster diversity is also gaining steam.

One factor, Potter said, is the growing national recognition that diverse school settings benefit kids and that charters have a role to play in school integration. She also said that some leaders are moving away from the concept of charter schools that serve almost exclusively at-risk students — in favor of a more integrated look.

State charter school laws still vary widely on using weighted lotteries for diversity purposes. A 2015 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Rhode Island — have laws that explicitly allow weighted lotteries and 19 have laws that could be interpreted to allow weighted lotteries. (North Carolina, which was in the latter category when the report was published, has since changed its laws to explicitly allow weighted lotteries.)

The report classifies Colorado’s charter school laws as “silent” on the issue of weighted lotteries, though it’s noted that a letter from the state attorney general has stated that they are allowed.

Reflecting the community

Leaders at Carbondale Community School say they’ve long believed in — and struggled with — creating a student body that represents a cross-section of the Roaring Fork School District where it’s located.

“I just think our schools are a reflection of our community,” said Tom Penzel, who served as principal of the charter school during the launch of the weighted lottery and recently took a job with the school district. “If this is what our community looks like, this is what our schools should look like.”

With just 15 percent of the school’s students coming from non-English-speaking homes last year — compared to 49 percent districtwide — there’s a long way to go. Still, the new weighted lottery made a dent.

All five children from Spanish-speaking homes who applied won kindergarten spots in last year’s lottery. There would have been room for one to two more based on the guidelines specified in the school’s new enrollment policy, but it was still an improvement over 2016-17 when there were just a couple kindergarteners from Spanish-speaking homes in the class, Penzel said.

Because the 135-student K-8 school is in such high demand, there are rarely openings in grades besides kindergarten — meaning it could take several years of weighted lotteries to see a difference schoolwide.

“It obviously makes cracking this nut of increased diversity all the more challenging,” said Michael Hayes, the executive director of the nonprofit that oversees Carbondale Community School and another charter school in Woody Creek.

Since word-of-mouth recommendations are the biggest factor in getting parents to apply for the lottery, Hayes hopes the school’s slowly growing Spanish-speaking population will help spread the word in that community.

Leaders of other charter schools with recently instituted weighted lotteries face other sorts of challenges.

The Denver Downtown Expeditionary School launched a weighted lottery prioritizing students eligible for free or reduced-price meals two years ago. But Letia Frandina, the school’s interim executive director, said it hasn’t made an impact yet. In fact, the percentage of students who get subsidized meals has actually dropped from about 29 percent in 2015-16 to 25 percent last year.

The school’s goal is for kids in that category to make up 40-50 percent of the student body. Districtwide, 68 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Frandina said one factor in last year’s dip may have been the school’s switch to a different lunch program and subsequent confusion about the free and reduced-price meal application form.

Some low-income families also have trouble securing transportation to the downtown school. Frandina said the school combined grant funds with fundraising dollars last year to buy light rail passes for some families and will continue the effort this year.

The school made another recent change that could help boost the numbers — working with Denver Public Schools officials to set aside six seats for low-income students who select the school during the district’s second round of school choice. While the weighted lottery provided access during the first round of choice in the winter, Frandina said some low-income families weren’t ready to make school decisions at that time.

“It’s so super early,” she said. “Some of our families are in transition.”

One piece of the puzzle

The well-regarded DSST network has weighted lotteries in place at six of 13 schools on three campuses — Stapleton, Conservatory Green and Byers.

All of those schools, which are located in higher-income neighborhoods than the other seven DSST schools, meet the network’s recently codified goal of serving 40-70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Spokeswoman Heather Lamm said DSST’s leaders always have prioritized having diverse schools.

“From the first day of the very first campus our goal was 100 percent we need to be an integrated campus … We believe that is the best academic environment and best community environment that we can get,” she said.

Most crucial in achieving that is communicating with prospective families, not weighted lotteries, she said.

Still, in a segregated city like Denver, some schools are in or near affluent neighborhoods where middle or upper-income students predominate.

“In those cases the weighted lottery can be very important,” Lamm said.

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.