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Will 'Backfilling' Become the Next Big Charter Schools Debate?

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A parent and school-choice advocacy organization in New York City is calling on the city's charter schools to fill thousands of empty seats in 3rd through 8th grades.

Backfilling, or replacing students who leave in the middle of their elementary, middle or high school careers, has traditionally been more of a technical term, but it appears as though it may be on its way to becoming a new front in the debate over whether charter schools are equitably serving students.

"Charter schools in New York City that leave classroom seats empty are artificially inflating perceived performance at the expense of real wait-listed children," said Princess Lyles, the executive director of Democracy Builders in a statement. The group released a report Friday documenting the extent of the issue in the city. It found that charter schools lost an average of 6 to 11 percent of their students each year in the period from 2006-2014, and that there were more than 2,500 seats left open in 2014.

The report charges that one of the reasons charter schools don't replace students who drop out or leave non-entry grades mid-year is because new students—who are more likely to come from transient, homeless, or immigrant families—might drag down the school's overall proficiency scores. Meanwhile, students are left on waiting lists indefinitely.

"If charter schools are losing the kids who are doing worse and they don't replace them, then their scores will look better," said Jeffry Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "And if they're not replacing them, then they will have an advantage, if the race is to improve proficiency, because traditional public schools have to backfill."

Henig said that researchers have been looking at this issue for a long time—not necessarily through a moral or political lens, but rather a methodological one: not accounting for backfill can skew comparisons both within the charter sector and between charters and regular public schools.

But recently, Henig said he has noticed the issue moving beyond the realm of research into the general public and political discourse.

This is the second time in two months that this has flared up. Lyles, the head of Democracy Builders, co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in February challenging policies that permit charter schools to only admit students in kindergarten, 6th, or 9th grades.

In a rebuttal piece, Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Foundation, wrote that requiring charters to backfill would create a "backdoor" to stripping autonomy from the independent schools. Furthermore, there are other structural and instructional reasons for not backfilling, Petrilli argued:

"Great schools spend a lot of time building strong cultures—the almost-invisible expectations, norms, and habits that come to permeate the environment, such as the notion that it's cool to be smart and it's not OK to disrupt learning. Culture-building is a whole lot harder to do if a school is inducting a new group of students every year in every grade. Furthermore, schools that help their charges make rapid gains in their early years will be forced to spend a lot of time remediating new students who enter midstream. That's why so many solid charters and networks that launch as middle or high schools eventually reach down to start serving students at age four, five, or six. It's hard to remediate a kid who has already gone through half a dozen years of learning nothing in a dire school."

You can read the rest of what Petrilli has to say on the subject here.

The backfilling issue could potentially become problematic for charter advocates—many of whom have waged strong arguments for raisinge the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in New York in part on long waiting lists—if some charters are refusing to admit students from waiting lists at any grade.

The University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education posted an essay on its blog in advance of the Democracy Builders' report. Here's a passage:

"Building a system of mutually complementary charter high schools is a challenge (like special education and student discipline) that the charter movement must now face. Charter schools—individually and as a group—need to figure out how they can provide effective education for all children in a locality. If they can't do that, they will reinforce the case for capping charter growth and protecting the traditional school district, which, regardless of its many failures, accepts responsibility for educating all children no matter how challenging."

The rest of the CRPE article can be found here.

Right now, this debate appears to be mostly happening among school choice advocates, although staunch charter opponent and education historian Diane Ravitch did post a short item on her blog about backfilling in March.

And this isn't an issue limited to New York City, the NPR member station in Philadelphia, WHYY also dug into the issue locally this week.


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