Tennessee Charter School’s “Volunteering” Mandate Excludes Eligible Kids

One of the central claims of charter school backers has long been that charter schools produce better standardized test scores with the “same students” as regular public schools. This is important because, if charter schools have a different student body and if they concentrate motivated students from engaged families into separate schools, then those schools with high test scores can’t claim those scores are due to better instruction.

A Reuters news service article, “How Charter Schools Get the Students They Want”, contradicted this “same students” assertion. The article looked at practices of certain charter schools across the country, and the response from the Tennessee charter school community was emphatically that such practices do NOT occur in Tennessee schools. The facts say otherwise.

Involved Parents Only

“Each academic year, a total of 20 volunteer hours are required of each parent or guardian of a student attending CCSE.”

One particular school, The Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence (CCSE), just received a glowing review from the Times Free Press, which detailed its success by noting that “its test scores are starting to rival those of the public school system” and that the school now desires to open a middle school campus. The article noted that about 90% of the school’s students come from economically impoverished families and that the school offers smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay than district schools. In keeping with the “same students” position, one of the school’s leaders asserted: “Our students aren’t different…. We just take a different approach.”

What isn’t mentioned is an enrollment requirement that is, in fact, VERY different from district schools. According to the school’s website, “Each academic year, a total of 20 volunteer hours are required of each parent or guardian of a student attending CCSE.” A 2011 article touting the opening of the school stated that parents would be required to perform tasks like “raking the playground.” Driving home the point that every student at this school has an engaged and active parent, the Times Free Press noted that, “Parents must be involved if they want their children to attend Chattanooga Charter.”

Hardly the “Same Students”

“… an admissions requirement that… a student body with a higher level of home support than those in a district school”

Encouraging parents to be involved and reaching out to parents for help is commendable. There’s no doubt that children of engaged and involved parents learn and perform better at school. However, the 20 “volunteer” hours from parents at this charter school are not simply encouraged, but required. It’s hard to imagine a school, public or private, where every child’s parents commit this level of time to support the school. Even schools with tremendously engaged parents don’t have every parent chipping in 20 hours of time every year. Announcing this requirement discourages parents who cannot or will not “volunteer” such time from enrolling their children at all. And what happens when a parent is unable to meet the commitment? Is the child denied enrollment for the next year? Is he/she encouraged to leave immediately?

CCSE parents should be applauded for the time they invest in their child’s education and in support of their school. If the school were simply reaching out to parents, saying, “We need your support in order to thrive, please be present and offer as much help as you are able” as so many public schools do, then it would commendable that the school was actively engaging parents in the school community. However, requiring 20 hours of time from every child’s parents is not outreach – it’s an admissions requirement that must unavoidably result in this school enrolling only those students who have parents or guardians very engaged in their educations. This is on top of the degree of parent involvement indicated by the fact that a parent seeks fills out an enrollment application for a charter school in the first place. This requirement necessarily creates a student body with a higher level of home support than those in a district school with an otherwise demographically similar student body. This difference renders it impossible to credit the school’s score advances solely to the methods used by the faculty. Comparisons between this school’s performance and others hold no significance.

Breaking the Law?

“[T]his practice may not even be allowed by law.”

Indeed, this practice may not even be allowed by law. Our charter school law states that “a charter school shall enroll an eligible pupil who submits a timely application.” There is no provision for additional enrollment requirements, such as mandatory hours of service by parents, mandatory parent meetings or orientations, or other parent involvement.

Congratulations to CCSE for its good test scores so far. If this school is truly bringing innovative instruction to Chattanooga students, then let’s hope it stops telling parents that they must commit 20 hours of time to the school in order to enroll their children, and start throwing the doors open to any and every child who submits an application. After all, isn’t that what we’ve been promised by charter school proponents?