Two Idaho charters reshape enrollments through ‘weighted’ lotteries

At least two Idaho charter schools are using weighted student lotteries to infuse more student diversity into their classrooms.

The 2020 Legislature gave charters, which have largely underserved Idaho’s minority and poor populations, the green light to “weight” their enrollment lotteries to give preference to at-risk students, including those in poverty, those who are homeless or in foster care, have disabilities or who demonstrate limited English proficiency.

Over a year later, Garden City-based Anser Public Charter and Gem Prep Meridian North charter are using the change in different ways.

The two charters together make up less than 3% of Idaho’s 75 public charter schools, but more schools with waitlists plan to incorporate the equity-focused mechanism in the coming year, said charter advocate and key supporter of the change Terry Ryan.

Other charters could be weighting their lotteries, but Ryan, who pushed hard for the legislation in 2020, pointed to two.

“We expect to see an additional two or three schools use this option for the 2022-23 school year,” Ryan, CEO of charter support group Bluum, told EdNews.  

Ryan didn’t name names, but said his organization is working with the schools to help ensure they follow the law.

For Anser, which has a perennial waitlist, that means an enrollment process that gives kids who qualify four “slips” with their names on it, as opposed to just one, during its annual lottery. Students who meet two or more of the law’s requirements get their names on six slips.

One year of the process is helping the school move the needle, said Anser Organization Director Heather Dennis, who compared enrollment rates among this year’s “multiple-slip” students with all new enrollees.

Of the school’s 70 new students, those who qualified for multiple slips gained entrance at equal or higher rates in all but one student subgroup: white students. A closer look at how things shook out among this year’s enrollees:

Student Subgroup All Newly Enrolled  Newly Enrolled with Weights 
White 71% 40%
American Indian or Native Alaskan 0% 0%
Asian 4% 0%
Black/African American 6% 15%
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander Less than 1% 5%
Hispanic or Latino 4% 20%
Two or more races 15% 15%
Economically disadvantaged 29% 100%

Gem Prep Meridian Director of Development Shay Angelo said her school’s lottery was weighted only for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a metric of student poverty. Students whose households meet federal income requirements for the benefit, or who qualify for other food-assistance programs, received weighted preference.

Qualifying students made up 15% of the first-year school’s 312 seats following this year’s lottery, Angelo told EdNews. The state average for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals is still much higher, at 36%, according to State Department of Education numbers.

Still, critics say charter lotteries should be left alone, and debate over the legislation simmered in 2020 when the law passed.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation deemed the bill “social justice nonsense” and argued that “middle-class kids” would “lose out” on getting into the schools of their choice.

Ryan readdressed the matter last week, arguing that it’s not about race, and that the law lets schools choose if a weighted approach is best for them.

The law is “not about quotas or race, which some are saying with no evidence,” Ryan said.

But other charter leaders are mixed over the practice, for several reasons.

“We won’t be weighting our lottery,” said Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy principal Dan Nicklay, whose high-performing college-prep school is 86% white and has no students with limited English Language proficiency this school year.

Nicklay gave two reasons for his refusal:

  1. His school “rarely” has a waitlist, so it’s a “moot” point there. “Pretty much everyone who wants in, gets in,” he said.
  2. The whole lottery concept helps ensure that schools can’t “engineer their clientele.” This was “crucial” in the debate over Idaho’s adoption of charter legislation years ago, Nicklay said. “Many feared that schools would find a way to attract/accept special populations (athletes, scholars, etc.) so that they could win competitions or somehow build ‘superschools’.”

The lottery, “in its intentionally blind methodology,” eliminates that likelihood,” Nicklay claimed. “Even if it’s for a ‘noble’ reason, I am opposed to giving preference to any subpopulation; the lottery should remain blind.”

Nicklay continued: “Someone, sometime is going to find a way to exploit this.”

Other local leaders are still more mixed on the matter.

“We are still exploring and collaborating on the weighted lotteries, so I am not much of a resource at this time,” Idaho Falls-based Alturas International Academy administrator Michelle Ball told EdNews.

Disclosure: Bluum and Idaho Education News are both funded by grants from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

Devin Bodkin

About Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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