Choice is the Real Issue, Not Backfill

Recently the somewhat ominous sounding term “backfill” has come onto public education stage, referring to the practice of replacing or not replacing students who leave a school with other students who wish admission. In particular, avoidance of backfilling in order to manipulate and increase test scores has been a charge leveled against some charter school management organizations who have conspicuously high test scores.

The narratives go somewhat like this: urban society is characterized by a high degree of mobility and thus by children needing to leave one school and enroll somewhere else. In the main, district-run public schools must accept all who enter, no matter when in the year or what their background is, except for certain residence regulations. Some public charter schools do the same, enrolling students throughout the year from their wait lists or from those who applied after the usual spring application period.

But some public charter schools and certain charter management organizations do not enroll new or replacement students at all or not at certain times – for example not in any grade with state testing requirements (gr. 3-12 in NY) or after January in a testing grade’s school year or in grade 7 of a school that ends at grade 8.

Explanations for not backfilling usually do not mention test scores but rather express concern for maintaining a school’s culture that has been developed over time. As Eva Moskowitz puts it: “If (we) backfilled older grades…the incoming students’ lower relative academic preparation would adversely affect the schools’ other students… We have an obligation to the parents in middle and high school, and the kids in middle and high school, that until the district schools are able to do a better job, it’s not really fair for the seventh-grader or high school student to have to be educated with a child who’s reading at a second- or third-grade level.”

Almost identical statements are made for district public schools, which have permission not to backfill, such as Frank Sinatra High School for the Arts and Stuyvesant High School and Hunter College High School. And most private schools and all other selective district public schools have similar policies and probably could make similar statements to Ms. Moskowitz. Their enrollment practices are rooted in the creation and preservation of a distinct and hard-won school culture; and those cultures are major attractions to those who apply for admission and survive their rigorous admission processes. The same desire for a coherent culture is true for those public charter schools that do not backfill, whether affiliated with a management organization or not. In fact, one method to achieve a clear culture is that public charter schools have limits on school size and class size defined in their charters and approved by their authorizers.

So, not backfilling by hard-to-get-in high-test-scoring public charter schools is the controversial topic of the moment. But the New York City Department of Education offers many kinds of distinct schools with purposeful cultures that also do not backfill. All have significant rejection rates, too.

For the most part, public district elementary schools are large and similarly structured. The wide differences between them could be said to be a function of zip code, individual differences in a school’s fund raising capabilities and consistent, coherent leadership. One response has been the creation of a wide variety of public charter schools, almost all of which are small and with a distinct culture or focus on a particular population.

The real issue is that there are just not enough choices of effective schools with strong cultures and with seats available. This is especially true at grades levels not typically associated with the beginning of a sequence of grades (Kindergarten, sixth grade, ninth grade). How else do we explain the huge waitlists that accumulate at many public charters as well as at the selective public district schools?

Many parents would enroll their children elsewhere if a place were available. Herein lies the foundation of increasing ‘choice’ in education. While the headlines are captured by arguments for and against backfilling, the rejection slips and waitlists accumulate. And parents and children languish in inadequate school circumstances they would prefer to leave and dependent on a lottery number coming up.

Dr. Richard A. Welles Acting Co-Director NYC Coalition of Community Charter Schools


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