Education

Under Pressure, Charter Schools Nix Cash-for-Applicant Tactic

A charter chain gets caught offering parents money to draw in students -- and quickly walks back the offer.

Photo Credit: zimmytws via Shutterstock.com

A city charter school network abruptly abandoned a recruiting effort [on Friday] that would have paid families cash rewards for bringing new students to its schools. The retraction happened two and a half hours after I reported the effort on Twitter [late last week].

The tweet caused a “firestorm,” said Public Prep CEO Ian Rowe, and even prompted a worried call from the Department of Education. ”Given the way it’s been framed and received, we decided to pull it,” he said.

The cash reward was available at two Girls Prep Lower East Side schools, which have vacant seats in their kindergarten through sixth grades. Public Prep promised to give current parents a $100 cash card and a $100 contribution to a college savings plan if they found students to enroll at the schools and stay for at least three months.

Rowe said the program was part of an aggressive recruiting strategy required by the Lower East Side’s competitive school marketplace. Besides attracting students, he said, another goal was to “incentivize our families to start saving for college.”

The recruiting tactic drew scrutiny from people in and out of the charter school community who said it undermined a core value of charter schools. Charter schools are supposed to compete with district schools based on the quality of education they offer students, and families are empowered to make a choice based on that. The bulletin also suggested that the schools do not truly have the same level of demand that supporters often boast about.

“It looks like you have to be paying people,” said a charter school official who requested anonymity so that he could speak openly. “So what kind of demand are you talking about?”

City school officials also took notice of the tweet. A department spokesman said he notified the city’s charter school office after seeing the tweet.

“As soon as we became aware of the program, our charter office contacted both the network and SUNY to notify them,” said the spokesman, Devon Puglia, referring to the organization that authorized the charter school. “As always, if we see something we believe another authorizer or charter network needs to be aware of, we contact the appropriate people. That’s exactly what happened here.”

When I first spoke to Rowe about the bulletin, he explained the program and didn’t mention any plans to cancel it. After speaking to the department, Rowe called me back to say he was abandoning the plan.

The recruiting tool was similar to another one used by a different charter school in 2010 that drew criticism from charter school advocates.

The episode supports one side of a debate about demand for charter schools in the city.

Charter school supporters point to long waiting lists as evidence of the large number of parents who want to send their children to charter schools but can’t find a spot. This year, more than 50,000 students are on waiting lists to attend charter schools, according to the New York City Charter Center.

But critics argue that marketing tactics inflate the numbers artificially, making the number of families who want charter schools but can’t get into them seem bigger than it really is.

Indeed, even as Public Prep was actively recruiting new families to fill vacancies, Rowe said the two schools currently have 182 students on their waiting lists.

How can schools with such a long waiting list also have vacancies? Rowe explained that enrollment is a challenge for his schools because they are housed in one of the city’s un-zoned districts, where families can pick which school they want to attend.

“We feel like we need to constantly recruit on the Lower East Side,” Rowe said. Public Prep also operates a school in the Bronx and plans to open another there next year.

But Lisa Donlan, president of the district’s Community Education Council, said Rowe’s problems weren’t unique to his charter schools.

“We have an all-choice district so our schools are always struggling for enrollment,” Donlan said. “It’s something that many of our schools have to deal with.”

The ability to offer a cash incentive as a recruitment strategy struck Donlan as an unfair tactic that swayed the competitive playing field in the favor of charter schools, she said.

“It reinforces for me the differences that exist between the charter schools and district schools,” Donlan added.

Geoff Decker joined the team in 2011 from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where he covered Brooklyn schools for NYTimes.com‘s The Local blog and contributed to the New York Times. Geoff studied journalism at Marist College.

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