A growing number of North Carolina’s charter schools are setting aside seats for disadvantaged students in their fiercely competitive admission lotteries. It’s part of a $37 million push to make those schools more diverse.
Today, 18 of the state’s 196 charter schools are using lottery set-asides for diversity. Another 18 new or existing schools have plans in the works.
Why the new interest? North Carolina now has almost $37 million in federal money for diversity grants … and the weighted lotteries are a requirement to get some of that money.
Diversity – or lack of it – has long been a point of contention in the debate over charter schools. Critics like Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center, say the independent public schools accelerate racial and economic segregation.
"In many cases they are substantially richer, substantially whiter, and they’ve really been in many cases avenues for richer, whiter families to leave the traditional public school system," Nordstrom said.
Dave Machado, director of the state office of charter schools, said he doesn’t believe that charter schools are more segregated than other public schools -- but he does think it’s a good thing to enroll more low-income students in high-performing charter schools.
Machado, who led Lincoln Charter School before taking the state job, says the North Carolina ACCESS grants are a good way to do that. He noted that almost 50 new or existing schools have applied for the grants, which also require charter schools to offer busing and free lunches, and eliminate other barriers to enrolling students of poverty.
"In the 20-some years that I have been involved in the charter school movement I do believe that the NC ACCESS grant is moving the needle more than anything I have seen," he said.
So, are charter schools more segregated than other public schools? That’s surprisingly hard to answer.
Consider Community School of Davidson, one of 53 charter schools serving Mecklenburg County kids. Eighty-three percent of its students are white – compared with less than 30% in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In CMS about 40% of all students are considered economically disadvantaged. Community School founder Joy Warner said about 4% of her students fit that description, "which is obviously super low."
Those are the kind of numbers people cite when they describe charter schools as havens for white and affluent families.
But Davidson K-8, less than 2 miles from Warner’s school, is the whitest school in CMS at about 78%, and its poverty level is only a bit higher than the charter school’s. And while Davidson K-8 pulls from a zone in north Mecklenburg County, Community School of Davidson’s students come from several counties.
That’s a pattern that plays out over and over across the region – neither charter schools nor most CMS schools reflect the countywide demographics, but they tend to reflect the areas they’re located in. Several charter schools in Charlotte have extremely high poverty levels and very few white students, much like the CMS schools near them.
And for suburban charter schools, it’s often unclear which county would be a valid comparison.
Still, Warner and her board want a different mix.
"Educationally I think any kind of diversity you can bring to a learning environment is better for everyone there," Warner said.
Weighting The Lottery
The first North Carolina charter school to set aside seats for low-income students was Central Park School for Children in Durham, a self-described progressive charter school that was attracting mostly middle- and upper-income families. It got state permission to alter its lottery in 2013, and four years later, the state allowed others to do the same.
A bit of background: When charter schools have more applicants than seats, they’re required to conduct admission lotteries. They can’t cherry-pick the best students or the most engaged families, but they can give preference to children of board members and staff, and to siblings of current students.
At Community School of Davidson, prospective families crowd in every year to watch the board run its computerized lottery. The 2019 lottery drew 3,056 applications. After the school pulled out 14 seats for students whose families qualify for federal lunch aid, there were 44 spots left -- most of them in kindergarten.
Warner, who’s still executive director at CSD, says parents haven’t complained about the diversity preference. But she also says it a hasn’t brought much change in the school’s demographics.
"Obviously it’s a slow process because we’re a K-12 school at full capacity," she said.
Parents Push Back
Charlotte Lab School has seen more change … and more pushback. (The school is a WFAE sponsor.)
Along with CSD, it was among the three charter schools launching a weighted lottery in 2017, before there was any grant money attached. But at the time, Charlotte Lab was a fairly new school, adding grade levels one year at a time -- and that provided more openings.
Also, Charlotte Lab is on the northern edge of uptown Charlotte, where nearby schools tend to have high poverty levels and significant black enrollment.
Founding director Mary Moss said the board tried to recruit from diverse communities, but when the school opened in 2015 "we ended up with a far more white and a far more affluent population than we were hoping for."
In 2017, when it ran the first weighted lottery, Charlotte Lab was about 60% white and had a poverty level of 17%. Now, she says the poverty level is 37%. That’s getting close to the goal of 40% by 2022. Just under half the current students are white.
Moss said the biggest impact has been at the middle school campus, which opened the year the weighted lottery began. Next year, Charlotte Lab will add a high school.
This is a school where being open about racism and economic justice is a high priority, Moss said. But some families still got upset about skewing the lottery and increasing poverty levels. Some families left "and probably our applications have gone down," she said.
Moss says popular, established charter schools that apply for ACCESS grants need to be prepared.
"You’re going to be fighting battles from multiple places and it’s going to be more people that you’re making unhappy every day so you have to believe in it," Moss said.
"If you’re doing it because you think there’s going to be money there," she adds, "that is not a good reason. It’s not enough of a reason."
High-Poverty Charter Schools
The ACCESS grants are also available to charter schools that already have large numbers of low-income students -- if they meet the academic requirements. Schools that earn D's or F's on the state's grading system don't qualify, and C schools must meet or exceed state targets for year-to-year growth.
Most A and B schools have relatively low poverty levels, whether they're run by a district or charter board, and most D's and F's go to high-poverty schools. Charlotte's Sugar Creek Charter cleared the bar, with a C and high growth, and Superintendent Cheryl Turner says she has applied for $1.2 million to pay for such things as extending the school day and buying more buses.
Even though more than 90 percent of Sugar Creek's students are economically disadvantged, the grant program will require her to set aside more seats in the lottery. But Turner says she'll also reserve spaces for students who are learning English as a second language, a minority that has been growing at Sugar Creek in recent years.
So far, the state has awarded just over $3 million of the $37 million grant pool. So that means the biggest effects will play out in the coming years, as established schools and new start-ups see what happens when they do more to reach North Carolina’s most disadvantaged kids.
Nordstrom, with the NC Justice Center, says charter schools were sold as a way to better serve students who weren't succeeding in traditional public schools. The grant program has potential to help them deliver on that promise, he said, but he wants to see results -- not just more low-income students getting in, but thriving in those schools.
And he says he'd rather see the state invest more money in public education across the board -- money that would be distributed to school districts and charter schools.
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