When I was younger, I struggled with learning disabilities. If it weren’t for the public schools I attended, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Making sure all children in our community are afforded the same opportunities is of critical importance to me. Schools that don’t enroll a representative population of low-income and special-needs students result in the remaining schools having to educate the highest-need students with insufficient funding.
For charter schools, enrollment is controlled by an annual lottery and management of waitlists. The lottery selects students from different prioritized buckets, and those priorities heavily influence school demographics. When students decline positions from the lottery, selective recruitment from the waitlist can further impact demographics. Unlike charter schools, the Los Altos School District enrolls students from within geographic boundaries and does not prioritize which students are admitted.
Bullis Charter School has a long history of treating its enrollment process as negotiating leverage with the district, as opposed to the fair arbitration of opportunity that it should be. The charter school has gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an enrollment preference for the richest part of the district (largely Los Altos Hills). After the expiration of the five-year agreement with the district in 2019, Bullis Charter School quietly reinstated the Los Altos Hills preference.
Under pressure from the Santa Clara County Board of Education, the charter school reluctantly agreed to remove the Los Altos Hills preference for kindergarten only. When the county board required Bullis Charter School to remove the Los Altos Hills preference for all grades, the charter school found a loophole and “suspended” the Los Altos Hills preference through its memorandum of understanding with the county board rather than a permanent revision to its charter.
Bullis Charter School board member Francis La Poll wrote to the Los Altos School District in June 2019 making it clear that the charter school considers its ability to manipulate enrollment preferences is primarily about negotiating leverage, not fairness to students. Eventually the county board of education forced Bullis Charter School to change its charter to permanently remove a Los Altos Hills preference.
However, Bullis Charter School still has the ability to manipulate its waitlist to influence student demographics. The waitlist process is not transparent and is susceptible to discrimination in who is encouraged to attend following the lottery. There are anecdotes of families being recruited to stay on the list and being told, “You are a good family, we can get you in.” Some families get admitted years after applying, while others never get contacted.
As Bullis Charter School does not disclose whether waitlisted students reside within the district, out-of-district enrollment is also a significant concern. The Los Altos School District should not provide funding for families moving out of the district after enrolling. Bullis Charter School board members have admitted that students are not removed from the waitlist and residency is only verified at initial enrollment. The size of the waitlist is regularly used by the charter school as negotiating leverage against the district, even though the list may include students who have no further interest in attending the charter school. Despite Bullis Charter School’s assertions of a large waitlist, last year it struggled to meet its enrollment projections and was aggressively calling Los Altos School District families asking them to attend Bullis Charter School.
For 15 years, Bullis Charter School’s low-income and high special-needs population has been significantly lower than the Los Altos School District as a whole. To prevent discriminatory practices and ensure a fair enrollment process, the county board of education should directly or through an independent third party manage the waitlist, publish clear rules for how it is managed and check residency of families upon enrollment and yearly thereafter.
Sangeeth Peruri is former president of the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees.