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Founding Parents at Charter Schools

The justification for charter schools is that they provide parents with a wide range of choices at public expense. But what is increasingly happening in Los Angeles, which has more charter schools than any other city in the nation, serves as a warning that all is not well with the movement.

Even though a lottery is required whenever demand for places in a charter school exceeds the supply, officials at a coveted school can rig the lottery to favor parents they prefer ("Charter Schools: Getting Your Child on the List," L.A. Weekly, Oct. 13). They do so by invoking the federal guideline that allows charter schools to give admissions priority to "founding parents."

To become a founding parent requires not only time but also money. The first prerequisite is satisfied by volunteering at a particular school long before the child is ready to apply for admission. The second involves payment that usually comes to a minimum of $2,500. The only restriction to the arrangement is that founding parents cannot constitute more than 10 percent of the school's total enrollment. The rule is supposed to apply only to schools that are beginning. However, the time period is not defined. As a result, a charter school that has been in existence for a time can add new founding parents.

Making matters even more unfair, charter schools are permitted to implement a first-come, first-served policy. That means those who want to become founding parents anxiously hover around their computers waiting for the announcement that a school is accepting applications. According to an analysis by L.A. Weekly of the 200 charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one-third grant a preference to founding parents (or variants of the term).

What about parents who work two jobs? Even though they want the best education for their children, they can't afford to do volunteer work or donate money. As a result, they are effectively shut out. For example, Larchmont Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles is 54 percent white and 17 percent Hispanic. But Van Ness Elementary School, which is only a few blocks away, is 5 percent white and 71 percent Hispanic.

Charter schools were never intended to be like private schools, which have always given the edge to affluent and connected parents. But it seems that unless the existing rules are changed, they will look more and more like them. It's important to keep this caveat in mind because charter schools are increasingly being promoted as the most promising solution to underperforming schools.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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