Preferential treatment: Fed eases rules to admit disadvantaged students through lotteries


By Mary C. Tillotson |

Charter schools that want to weigh lottery systems toward admitting more educationally disadvantaged children are now eligible to receive federal start-up money.

A LEG UP: Disadvantaged students may now be given an advantage in getting into public charter schools, according to new guidelines from the US DOE.

Before, only charter schools running unweighted lotteries were eligible for the funding, but the U.S. Department of Education has changed the guidelines.

Charter schools often receive more applications than available seats, so they use lotteries to decide who can attend.

“Educationally disadvantaged students” include low-income students, students with disabilities, homeless students, migrant students and English language learners, according to the DOE guidelines.

“There were charters that had initially opened up to serve high-poverty communities, and they were successful, and they weren’t getting who they wanted to apply. They were getting far more affluent families applying. They weren’t targeting the population, but just using straight lotteries. They weren’t getting as many low-income kids as they wanted,” said Lauren Morando Rhim, co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

“When schools were feeling pressured to be more diverse, they said, ‘If we had an open lottery, we can’t control who comes, but if we have a weighted lottery, we have a better chance of getting more diverse kids,’” she said.

If a charter school’s administration genuinely wants to enroll more students with disabilities, the weighted lotteries can help, Rhim said.

“If you have a school that doesn’t want that, there’s nothing about this guidance that’s going to address that,” she said.

Anecdotally, she knows of charter schools that want more students with special needs and also of parents who tried to enroll their special-needs children in charter schools but were “counseled away,” she said.

Charter schools are often criticized for enrolling fewer special-needs students than traditional district schools.

Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said she didn’t want to dismiss the fact charter schools enroll fewer special-needs kids but, she said, the numbers should be taken in context.

“If you’re starting at the elementary level, a lot of (charter schools) end up identifying special needs early on and addressing them, then taking the label off,” she said. “The fact that the numbers are lower doesn’t mean you’re not serving the kids. It means you’re addressing the disability early on and eliminating it.”

Charter schools, she said, have a smaller pool of resources than traditional district schools. If a school does not have the resources to serve a particular student, the school’s administration owes the parents an honest assessment of the school’s ability to serve that student. The school may have great resources for students with dyslexia, but not for blind students, for example.

“If you’re one charter school without a lot of resources, you’re just not going to be the place for a lot of students with disabilities,” she said.

“The optimist in me hopes that states will encourage the use of weighted lotteries to make schools more diverse. The pessimist in me is concerned that there may be loopholes or unintended consequences that we haven’t fully explored that may end up further limiting access.”

Schools should not use weighted lotteries exclusively to draw in more disadvantaged students, the guidance says, but “as part of a broader strategy” including recruiting those students.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at

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