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New Article Describes the “Dirty Dozen” Ways Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment


William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,
Kevin G. Welner, (303) 492-8370,

URL for this press release:

BOULDER, CO (May 6, 2013) – Charter schools may be public, but they can shape their student enrollment in surprising ways. This is done though a dozen different practices that often decrease the likelihood of students enrolling with a disfavored set of characteristics, such as students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty.

“The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment,” by Kevin Welner, Professor of education policy at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center, is now available here:

To describe the strategies, Welner’s Teachers College Record article identifies 12 different approaches, using lighthearted category names such as “The Bum Steer,” “Location, Location, Location,” and “Mad Men.” But the subject itself is of crucial importance, since it raises vital issues concerning equity as well as the reporting of research outcomes.

Researchers and governmental authorities have long known that charter schools generally under-serve a community’s at-risk students. Welner’s article builds on this research to explore the charter school practices that result in those enrollment outcomes.

When charter schools fail to serve a cross-section of their community, they undermine their own potential and they distort the larger system of public education. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Welner. “The task for policymakers is to redesign charter school policies in ways that provide choice without undermining other important policy goals. For instance, being innovative doesn’t require being selective or restrictive in enrollments.”

“These practices,” Welner explains, “also make it difficult for researchers to accurately compare the effectiveness of charter and non-charter schools.” High-quality research studies make great efforts to include a comparison group of non-charter school students that matches charter school students in key ways such as race, free and reduced lunch status, and gender.

Yet the many ways charters influence enrollment create daunting obstacles for researchers. Welner cautions researchers and policymakers: “These studies cannot account for all these practices merely by research design or statistical adjustments. Studies of charter school performance are almost surely attributing results to charter school instructional programs that are caused in part by charter school enrollment practices.”

Welner says that he started to write this analysis after reading a February 2013 article written by Reuters reporter Stephanie Simon. Her article described a variety of ways that charter schools “get the students they want.” “I sought to build on Simon’s excellent work,” Welner said. “After reading the Reuters article, I started noticing a variety of other ways in which charter schools influence the makeup of their enrollment.”

He added, “I’m not sure if my ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of practices is complete. There may be others. And readers should keep in mind that some of these tactics have also been used by non-charter public schools.” After decades of market-based and accountability reforms, all public schools now face the same incentives around cost and test-scores. “The difference, of course, is that many of the tactics described in this article are simply not available to non-charter public schools.”

The new article is not an indictment of all charter schools. “There are plenty of charter schools that try to enroll a diverse and representative group of students,” concludes Welner. “But there are plenty of others that use a potent combination of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ practices to shape their enrollments in ways that flout our societal understandings of public schooling.”

Find Kevin Welner’s article on the Teachers College Record website. The article is freely available until May 10th at: After that, it will be available on the NEPC website at:

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. Its mission is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information about the NEPC, please visit