Exploitative Charter School Lotteries Not Required by Law

By Cynthia McCabe

Balloon arches span the room, loudspeakers pump out high-energy pop music, and grinning hosts cheer into microphones. It’s no party for many of the people in attendance though.

Charter school operators eager to showcase interest in their facilities have turned to public events orchestrated as much for the media as for the parents and children who jam the folding chairs. In media interviews, those holding the events say they’re required to do so by law. But there’s a difference between what they’re required to do to ensure fair space allotment and the public spectacles they actually conduct.

The Department of Education, in its non-regulatory guidance documents, indicates that a random lottery should be held if there are more students seeking entrance in a charter school than there are spots available. Only in California does state law indicate that that lottery must be held publicly.

Yet across the country, public lotteries have become a high-octane way to press an expansionist agenda. That’s because at the events in the nation’s largest cities, hundreds if not thousands of students are typically vying for a small percentage of classroom spots.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in documents advising its member schools states that it “and charter support organizations around the country strongly recommend that schools publicize their lotteries to demonstrate the strong popularity of charter schools.” In a section explaining why these public events are a “wonderful opportunity,” the first benefit given is to “draw media attention to the demand for high-quality charters.”

The document goes on to specify everything from microphone to snack availability (“Families will be more likely to attend if you can present them with reasons that entice them.”) It advises announcers on what to say when a name is pulled in the lottery. “‘Selected’ is preferable to ‘winning.’” For the vast majority of attendees who will go home without their number having been pulled, NAPCS suggests sending them a thank you letter for attending and “wish them the very best.”

Footage captured by the local television news cameras summoned to the events shows parents and children leaving them in tears. Newark Mayor Cory Booker — an avowed charter supporter — cannot attend the very events that fill them.

“I don’t even go to lotteries anymore because they break my heart,” he says in the 2010 documentary The Lottery.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins is pointed about the scene that unfolds at the lottery events: “Charter schools, please, stop. I had no idea you selected your kids with a piece of performance art that makes the losers go home feeling like they’re on a Train to Failure at age 6. You can do better. Use the postal system.”

New York City bus driver and parent Eric Roachford attended one in 2008. He was followed by a crew filming The Lottery. Walking into the vast auditorium where the lottery event was held, was like “coming into an arena,” Roachford told neatoday.org in a recent interview. “It was just a big event and very surreal. I was looking at the stage and all and thinking, ‘Wow, this is what we have to go through?’”

His son’s number wasn’t called. “He looked at us and was like, ‘Why didn’t they call my number?’” The Roachfords went home.

But in contrast to The Lottery‘s depiction of charter schools as the only option for inner-city students to succeed academically, Roachford and his wife ended up sending their son to a public school. He was admitted to a gifted and talented program and he says they’ve been extremely happy with the school.

“There are good schools in the public school system,” Roachford said.

And as this Politics Daily piece on The Lottery points out, a report last June from the Department of Education finds that “among charter schools popular enough to hold lotteries, overall, our results suggest that they are no more successful than nearby traditional public schools in boosting student achievement.”

There are signs that charter school marketers are weighing the effect of the circus-like atmosphere of their public lotteries on children. This past year the Success Charter Network, which has previously brought thousands of parents to public events, opted for a computerized drawing at the individual schools.

Photo: Jamal Defares