Accountability Bias Charter Schools Education Industry Privatization School Choice Special Education

When “School Choice” Means “Schools Choose”

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Two scholars demonstrated what we already knew: many charter schools are skimming and choosing the students they want while excluding the ones they don’t want, the ones likely to cost too much or pull down their test scores.

Peter Bergman and Isaac McFarlin Jr. tested the hypothesis.

Here is the abstract of their paper.

School choice may allow schools to “cream skim” students perceived as easier to educate. To test this, we sent emails from fictitious parents to 6,452 schools in 29 states and Washington, D.C. The fictitious parent asked whether any student is eligible to apply to the school and how to apply. Each email signaled a randomly assigned attribute of the child. We find that schools are less likely to respond to inquiries from students with poor behavior, low achievement, or a special need. Lower response rates to students with a potentially significant special need are driven by charter schools. Otherwise, these results hold for traditional public schools in areas of school choice and high-value added schools.

An excerpt from the study:

We find that, overall, traditional public schools’ response rates are similar to the response rates from charter schools across treatment messages. However, there is a different response rate to messages that signal a child has a significant special need. Traditional public schools exhibit no differential response rate to these messages, but charter schools are 7 percentage points less likely to respond to them than to the baseline message. This result is important because students with disabilities are twice as expensive to educate than the typical student without a disability (Moore et al., 1988; Chambers, 1998; Collins and Zirkel, 1992), and students with the severe disabilities can cost 8-to-14
times to educate compared to the typical non-disabled student (Griffith, 2008).

Here are commentaries.

From the Atlantic:

Parents of students who are “harder to educate” may have a hard time getting schools to reply to their emails about how to apply.

From U.S. News:

Students with behavior problems, low achievement or special needs are sometimes not encouraged to apply to charter schools…

Charter schools and public schools of choice – those in school districts that allow students to choose from any number of schools instead of zoning them to just one – are less likely to encourage students with a history of poor behavior, low academic achievement or special needs to apply.

Charter schools, in particular, were less likely to encourage students with a potentially significant special need to apply.

That’s the latest research published Thursday by Peter Bergman, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Isaac McFarlin Jr., assistant professor at University of Florida’s College of Education.

The researchers sent emails from fictitious parents to nearly 6,500 schools in 29 states and the District of Columbia, asking whether any student is eligible to apply to the school and how to do so. Each email signaled either a disability status, poor behavior, high or low prior academic achievement, or no characteristic at all. The researchers also varied students’ implied race, household structure and gender.

“We find that schools respond less often to messages regarding students whom schools may perceive as more challenging to educate,” the researchers concluded.

The baseline response rate was 53 percent. But emails signaling a student with a potentially restrictive special need were 5 percentage points less likely to receive a response; emails signaling a behavior problem were 7 percentage points less likely to receive a response; and emails signaling prior low academic achievement were 2 percentage points less likely to receive a response.

Notably, emails indicating good grades and attendance were neither more nor less likely to receive a response.

In one sub-analysis, the researchers compared the responses of charter schools directly to the nearby traditional public schools. Overall, they found the response rates similar with one major exception: If an email signaled a child had a significant special need, charter schools were 7 percentage points less likely to respond while traditional public schools were not more or less likely to respond.

“This is one of the most striking findings of the study,” McFarlin said, “because it raises the question of whether high-performing charter schools are successful in part because they screen out the costliest-to-educate students from their applicant pools.”

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