A long-simmering debate burst into the open this week when two school choice advocates wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling on charter schools to immediately begin "backfilling" the empty seats that inevitably open throughout the year when students move away or drop out. Many of the most successful charter networks don't backfill, even when they have long waiting lists. They admit students only at the start of the academic year and only in certain grades - say, kindergarten and first grade for an elementary school program.No kidding, Mike? The answer to the moral question is all means all, and all schools should backfill.
Each entering class dwindles, often substantially, as the years go on; the charter takes a hit in funding as enrollment drops, but it doesn't have to deal with the disruption (or the negative impact on test scores) that comes with constantly bringing in new children unfamiliar with the school's rules, expectations and curriculum.
"Without backfilling, a school can maintain the illusion of success," write Princess Lyles and Dan Clark, executives at Democracy Builders, a nonprofit school choice organization in Harlem. The two insist that charters have an obligation to backfill so they can serve more children - even if it hurts their test scores.
That argument drew a stern rebuke from Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In a blog post, he argues that "great schools spend a lot of time building strong cultures ... such as the notion that it's cool to be smart and it's not OK to disrupt learning." That's a lot harder to do, he said, if new students are always coming in. Backfilling might be good for a student who gets to claim an empty seat mid-year, he says, but if it's bad for all the other kids in the class, should charters be forced to do it? "There's a moral question," he writes.
Petrilli acknowledges that it's unfair to compare test scores at charters that don't backfill with scores at charters that do - or, for that matter, with scores at the neighborhood district school, which has to take anyone who walks in the door.
His solution? Stop comparing schools. "Everyone should get out of everyone else's business," he writes.
Comparing schools, of course, is the whole point of the accountability systems the education reform movement has championed for years - comparing, and then sanctioning and even shuttering schools that struggle. So Petrilli's plea fell flat with some advocates of traditional public schools.
"If the 'culture' of your school is built by cherry picking & weeding out students, that's fine. You just shouldn't receive any public funds," former school administrator Sean Cain wrote on Twitter.
A good primer on the issue, published last spring in Chalkbeat New York.