school segregation

The Oklahoman’s Ben Felder recently tackled two sides of the most daunting challenge for urban school districts. After generations of racial segregation by law and by economics, separation by choice has put school segregation on steroids.

The Oklahoman analyzed the applications for Oklahoma’s 29 charter schools and found that some scrupulously respected the spirit of the state’s charter law. These charters ask for “nothing more than a student’s name and contact information,” according to the article. However, Felder reports, “some applications require a recommendation from a teacher, ask for details on a student’s discipline history or if they have received special education services.”

The State Board of Education’s general counsel, Brad Clark, is quoted as saying, “Because student demographics and abilities are not to be considered in enrollment decisions, asking for those details on an application could violate Oklahoma law.”

Applications to charter schools differ

Although I respect the holistic and meaningful instruction that I have witnessed at ASTEC Charter School, it is hard to understand how it could require:

Prospective students and parents fill out a 14-page application with over 80 questions, some that ask for short essay responses … ASTEC’s application also asks for a student’s discipline history, if they have ever received special education services and whether they can write in cursive.

Felder cites KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory as a charter that “uses a one-page application that only asks for a student’s contact information.” Such a welcoming approach helps explain why the Tulsa KIPP, despite all of its advantages in terms of competing with neighborhood schools, received only a C+ on its state Report Card. The complex and questionable application process used by OKC’s KIPP Reach almost certainly explains much of the reason why it scored two grades higher.

When enrolling at KIPP Reach, parents are told that there is only a 5 percent chance of students being admitted to the nine slots available for new 6th through 8th graders. Even when applying for the 90 5th grade slots, parents must report, “How many times has the student’s family moved in the past 12 months?” They must also report if any adult in the student’s home has been employed for income over the past two weeks.

The transfer loophole

Felder’s second article, on the prevalence of school transfers in traditional OKCPS schools, reveals an equally shocking fact. He reports, “More than 8,000 students were counted as transfers, but there are no records on students who had a transfer request denied.” Moreover, the school principal decides on the transfer request “with no requirement to justify an approval or rejection.”

Based on thousands of conversations with my students, their parents and my former students who now send their kids to OKCPS schools, I suspect that informal transfers are comparably common. In my experience, the OKCPS is as close as it gets to a 100 percent free-choice school district; about the only kids who can’t informally transfer at will are 1) those who have a record of discipline problems that keeps them from moving to better neighborhood schools or 2) those who are constrained by out-of-school factors, like family members’ health and/or transportation problems.

My neighbors (in the Harding area) would attend schools ranging from Crooked Oak to Putnam West. They might attend the school closest to where their moms worked, or they might live with a relative during the school weekdays.

Throughout my career I saw the same pattern: Former John Marshall students would come back and repeatedly say how much easier it is to teach and learn in the orderly climate at Northwest Classen. They would grin and recall how Northwest administrators told them, “You are welcome here, but don’t even think of bringing that Marshall s–t here.”

‘A wink as good as a nod to a blind horse’

Segregation by choice, which became known as the Big Sort, escalated when the poorer half of Marshall students were sent to Centennial. Every day, a student would transfer in or out of my classes. They were often facing long-term suspension at their old school, but, under the rules of the game, the process would be dropped if they could claim residency with a relative in another school. And everyone knew which schools were the “alternative schools for the alternative schools.”

“A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse,” so the unwritten rules produced clear patterns. Top Marshall students who weren’t admitted to magnets or charters quietly went to Northwest and suburban schools. Top students in the Centennial area (who didn’t formally exercise their rights to choose) were welcome at Marshall and the suburbs.

Occasionally, a Centennial administrator would become so frustrated with a chronically disruptive student who didn’t live in the feeder zone that she would threaten to check the kid’s enrollment papers. Our principals, however, wouldn’t go through with anything so cruel. They knew that almost all students had multiple options, but, for so many of our kids who had suffered so much, the choice was Centennial or the streets.

Lessons to be learned

So, what lessons can we learn from Felder’s articles?

A legal effort to regulate charters’ application paperwork would seem to be a no-brainer. The bigger question, however, is whether charters can be persuaded to retain more high-challenge students.

And, as Felder reports, an OKCPS effort to manage formal transfers would require additional staff during a time of budget constraints. Rather than engage in cat-and-mouse data games to manage patrons’ choices, a better approach would be a major investment in wraparound services to help kids manage the pain that they bring to school.