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Opinion

Editorial: The bias inherent in some charter schools’ admissions process

Century Academy for Excellence Charter School
Students attend a graduation ceremony at Century Academy for Excellence Charter School in Inglewood on May 23.
(Los Angeles Times)

And you thought applying to college could be tough.

Take a look at the online application form for 2016-17 at Roseland Accelerated Middle School, a charter school in Santa Rosa. It’s called a registration form, but the intimidating set of documents with a couple dozen pages must be completed before a student is accepted, not after, according to the website.

The “Getting to Know You” sections require would-be students to write five short essays covering two pages (“use complete sentences”) on a variety of topics (“Tell us about your family”). Then there’s a third page calling for short responses on an additional six issues (“The qualities and strengths that I will bring to school are… .”).

Wait, wait. We’re just getting started. The parents have to write seven little essays of their own and then fill out the child’s medical history, including medications (an intrusive request that some critics say violates federal privacy law) — and remember, this isn’t for an accepted student to attend, but for a student to apply in the first place. It’s capped by the would-be student’s minimum three-page autobiography, typed, double spaced and “well constructed with varied structure.”

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This is for a taxpayer-funded public school that, by law, all students are supposed to be able to attend, regardless of background. If too many sign up, enrollment is supposed to be handled by a lottery. That’s supposed to keep charter schools from cherry-picking students so they can show the best testing results, as they’ve long been accused of doing.

Roseland, which didn’t respond to phone inquiries from The Times, isn’t the great exception. The ACLU’s Southern California chapter partnered with Public Advocates to examine the application policies of 1,000 of the state’s 1,200 charter schools. A fourth of them, Roseland included, had a policy that could be used to exclude some types of students in violation of state law, including those with lower incomes or poorer English skills, the report showed, whether it was requiring parents to volunteer, demanding students’ academic histories or failing to provide services for special-education students. On some applications, the obstacles were relatively minor and easily corrected, but others appeared aimed at keeping out low-performing students or those whose families weren’t in a position to handle the complicated forms.

“There’s no central authority for charter schools, so we wanted to shine a light on it,” ACLU attorney Victor Leung told a Times reporter.

No students should have to write lengthy autobiographies or divulge their medical histories to a school.

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No kidding. California has liberal laws on charter schools that allow for large numbers of them to open. If a school district rejects a proposal for a new charter school for solid reasons, the operator can usually win approval by appealing to the county education department or the state. Don’t get us wrong; well-run charter schools have been a lifeline for many families. But not all have been well run or welcoming to everyone, and the state has done a terrible job of requiring stringent oversight of these schools, or looking into problems itself.

It’s interesting to note that in L.A. Unified, where conflicts over the growth of charters have led to increased district scrutiny, only 10% of charter schools were found in the report to have any irregularities with their admissions policies. Many of L.A.’s charters were founded to help the district’s most underserved students, with applications intended to draw their families in, not discourage them.

The apparent attempts to sift applicants shouldn’t strike the state as new. In 2013, Reuters reported on charter schools nationwide whose applications presented unreasonable obstacles to the poorest and least educated families. The story specifically mentioned Roseland’s intimidating application, and those of several other California schools.

The ACLU and Public Advocates assert that charter schools shouldn’t be able to do any kind of auditions or set any kinds of requirements. That goes too far; as with some public school districts’ magnet schools, there may be limited hoop-jumping required to identify the students in the region who have the specialized skills the school is designed to serve. Is it fair to say that the Orange County School of the Arts, a sought-after charter school in Santa Ana, shouldn’t hold auditions for students? That negates the regional purpose of the school: top-level arts instruction for highly talented teenagers.

In some cases, though, charter schools — public schools — are clearly laying out obstacles bigger than those in the applications of private universities, with requirements that put low-income students, foster children and those from poorly educated or immigrant families at a disadvantage. No students should have to write lengthy autobiographies or divulge their medical histories to a school that could then decide their asthma or history of cancer makes them a bad bet. Their autobiographies might include information about parental ties to the community or immigration status — information that no public school has a right to know. Parents shouldn’t have to volunteer on campus to get their kids into school — those who work two jobs, or have younger children to care for, probably don’t have the time — or write essays of their own, especially when they might not be literate.

The state needs reasonable, clearly defined and well-enforced rules, but as with so many aspects of school accountability, it has none of these.

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