Charter school lotteries: What once took weeks, is now measured in minutes

The rules for charter school lotteries in Idaho haven’t changed but the selection process is starkly different from how it was handled before the digital age.

Most charter schools host their lotteries before spring break, typically in February, March and April. Charters are open enrollment schools and use the lottery to randomly select students from a waitlist or application pool.

In the past, charter school administrators spent countless hours manually organizing applications and index cards.

Now, the push of a button commands computer software to instantaneously randomize names and select next year’s incoming students.

It’s all over in a matter of minutes, except for notifying jubilant or disappointed parents.

At Compass Charter in Meridian, the selection process used to require 700 labeled index cards, buckets for randomly pulling cards and long tables manned by eight people. Organizing and labeling took the school’s registrar two months to prepare.

Enrollment software platforms like Schoolmint and PowerSchool digitized the process. What once took weeks, is now measured in minutes.

Every charter school’s lottery selection process is governed by State Department of Education rules, monitored by the Idaho Public Charter Commission, observed by a neutral third party and open to the public. An example of a charter commission observation report can be found here.

Rule compliance is critical because charters typically have more applicants than open seats. 

Enrollment software has reduced the chance of human error and creates an electronic paper trail if parent concerns arise. And each school has grievance procedures. 

Compass had 759 applicants for grades K-12. There were an estimated 147 seats available for the 2023-24 school year. Over the last 10 years, the school averaged approximately 727 applicants per year.

Future Public School in Garden City serves lower income households in grades K-6 with a focus on inclusion and diversity. The school received approximately 176 applications for 120 openings.

Treasure Valley Classical Academy in Fruitland will be adding a 10th grade class next year, growing to K-10. There were 284 applications; of those, 82 families applied for 54 open kindergarten seats. The remaining 202 applicants will be placed on a waiting list to fill spots in grades 1-10 as they become available.

“We would love to offer seats to all students, but there’s a limit in our facility,” said Stephen Lambert, the school’s executive director.

Charters are public schools funded by the state and therefore free and open to any student. 

The state requires them to create an equitable selection process — the lottery — to determine who gets in each year and who is placed on the waiting list.

The first charter school in Idaho, Anser Charter School in Boise, knows the process well. In February, the school hosted its 25th lottery. With its recent expansion, Anser was able to offer 125 seats next school year. To learn more about the process, take a look at Anser’s enrollment page at this link.

Applying at a charter school website is straightforward, but securing a seat is not guaranteed.

The Idaho Public Charter School Commission is the largest authorizer in the state with 60 schools; public school districts authorize 12 schools.

These schools are given administrative autonomy. They manage applications, set deadlines, run their own lottery and manage their waitlist. 

Each cycle, students who are not selected during the lottery are placed on a waitlist. That list is used to award seats throughout the school year as they become available.

Students already attending a school are guaranteed a seat the following year; schools with no waitlist can enroll all applicants, which is not common. 

The lottery’s selection process — who is selected first, second and so on — uses priority groups governed by Idaho statute.

  • First Priority – children of founders and full-time employees
  • Second Priority – siblings of students already enrolled or selected by the lottery
  • Third Priority – students who reside within the school’s attendance boundary
  • Fourth Priority – students who reside outside of the school’s attendance boundary

In addition to the priorities, some schools add a “weight” preference to applications to provide more opportunities for underprivileged students.

At Anser, students who mark they are an English language learner, experienced economic disadvantage, experienced homelessness or are in the foster care system get four entries rather than one. 

Anser’s organization director Heather Dennis said, “We are trying to reach a broader audience for our school and trying to create a more diverse student body — really look like the community of Boise.”

It’s an opportunity — not a guarantee or a quota, Dennis said. 

This “increases the percentage chance of them getting in. We are trying to create the conditions for an economically diverse school,” she said.

Not all schools, however, add weight to applications to improve accessibility for certain demographic groups.

Families whose son or daughter is selected through the lottery will receive an offer of enrollment. To hold the spot, the offer has to be accepted and enrollment paperwork must be completed. For students on a school’s waitlist, enrollment offers can come at any time before or during the school year. Waitlists are good for one year, so applicants must reapply each year.


Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

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