Charter schools can provide options to families who otherwise might not have them. This is, in essence, the equity-based argument for charters. Wealthier families have long enjoyed school choice by paying to live in neighborhoods with good public schools or enrolling in private schools. Poorer families have depended on public school systems to provide high-quality education in neighborhoods they can afford. Charter schools have the potential to expand families’ tuition-free options, closing the gap in school choices between wealthier and poorer families. However, they only expand families’ options if they are genuinely accessible—not just technically available. An assortment of barriers can get in the way.
Federal and state laws help to limit the formal barriers that would make charter schools inaccessible. For example, many state charter laws prohibit performance-based admission standards and require lottery-based admissions for oversubscribed schools. Moreover, charter schools cannot deny students entry based on race or class and must serve students with disabilities in accordance with federal law.
However, as charter schools have grown in number and market share, it has become clear that informal barriers keep many families from enrolling in schools that are technically available. These informal barriers come in different forms. Some are more consequential than others, or more easily remedied through policy. Some are hard to see, while others are in plain sight—perhaps erected by school leaders or policymakers.
This post describes three examples of informal barriers to accessing charter schools, drawing on recent issues in large U.S. school systems.
A family can’t choose a school if their children can’t get there. This simple truth motivates a just-released Urban Institute report (that we contributed to) on transportation in five choice-rich cities. One unexpected takeaway from this report is that charter school students do not travel much farther than traditional public school students to get to school. This might be a result to celebrate if, for example, families are finding high-quality options near their homes. Alternatively, it might be a problem if families cannot physically get to the schools they want and are settling for nearby alternatives.
A current dispute between a charter school operator in New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board illustrates how transportation availability can affect access. New Orleans, which has the most extensive choice-based education system in the country, has attempted to make schools accessible to families across the city. Charter contracts (along with various laws and guidelines) require schools to provide free and adequate transportation to students. Virtually all New Orleans charter schools provide yellow school bus service citywide—a substantial cost that is carried by charter operators. However, one operator, Einstein Charter Schools, is contesting the idea that it must provide school bus service. Einstein argues that it provides adequate transportation by offering its students, who range in age from pre-K through high school, public transit tokens.
To explore that argument, we investigated how long it takes to reach Einstein’s main campus in the morning via public transit. After locating the center of each census tract in New Orleans, we used Google Maps to identify the fastest route to Einstein that arrives between 7:30 and 8:00 AM. The map below illustrates what we found.
From many parts of New Orleans, a public transit commute to Einstein involves an hour or more of travel that includes long walks and waiting for multiple buses. Those walks can include hazards such as crossing highways. Einstein offers free tokens for parents of young students to accompany children to school, but it could substantially shorten parents’ available work times to escort young children on these long trips to school and back. Realistically, this type of transportation barrier eliminates schools as viable options for many families. Intentionally or not, it can restrict access to those who either live near the school or have the time and resources to commute by car.
Einstein is one case, but it is an important case, because it represents a school testing a district’s efforts to provide citywide transportation to charter schools. Many charter schools across the country are not required to provide any transportation at all.
A second type of informal barrier arises from school enrollment processes. In some cities, enrollment is managed by individual schools. To have the chance to enroll, families must navigate application processes, paperwork, and deadlines for each school to which they want to apply. Some cities have streamlined choice through unified enrollment systems that allow parents to submit a ranked set of school requests and place students in schools using an algorithm. These systems are not a silver bullet for eliminating enrollment-related barriers—for example, algorithms that give strong priority based on students’ neighborhood of residence might limit access to high-quality schools—but they can help to simplify the admissions process, improve students’ placements, and increase transparency.
Another enrollment-related barrier that has arisen in both decentralized and centralized enrollment settings involves asking families to visit schools, often during school hours. New York City recently identified its “limited unscreened” admissions method, which gives admissions priority to students who attend an open house or high school fair, as a particular obstacle for parents who work long hours or have caretaking responsibilities. Noting that high-needs students receive this type of priority less often than other students, it has pledged to eliminate the practice as part of its effort to make schools more integrated and accessible.
A related set of barriers involve the information that parents have about schools. Navigating school choice processes and choosing schools is difficult. It can be especially difficult for certain groups of families, including those who are new to an area, do not speak English, are not tapped into social networks with rich information about schools, or do not know where to find formal information. If information barriers result in families making uninformed or misinformed choices, students might end up in schools that do not fit them well and choice-based systems might not generate pressures for schools to succeed in order to attract families.
Fortunately, these barriers are currently receiving a lot of attention. Governments and other organizations are exploring different approaches to inform families about their school options, and researchers are examining how parents respond to various types of information.
Other barriers and considerations
Transportation, enrollment, and information represent just a few of the many informal barriers that could keep families from sending their children to schools that are technically available to them. Other barriers, like a school culture that feels uninviting to certain families or selective marketing and recruiting, can be more difficult to see and less suited to policy solutions.
Still, removing barriers is critical for making choice-rich school environments equitable. Removing these barriers can be challenging, requiring policymakers to make trade-offs between expanding families’ access and infringing on schools’ autonomy. However, charter schools’ autonomy is not absolute. While charters should be able to choose their teachers, mission, and curriculum, they should not be able to choose their students. Making charter schools accessible is a fundamental responsibility of policymakers.
Kim Truong and Max Rombado contributed to this post.