Charter schools aren’t making the grade, study says
Students who attend charter schools perform worse academically than students who go to public schools, says a new study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.
Commissioned by pro-charter school groups, the CREDO study found, in “unmistakable terms,” that charter schools nationwide are falling short of their promise.
Researchers based their conclusions on a review of test results from 2,403 charter schools, accounting for more than 70 percent of the nation’s charter-school students.
In five states — Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Colorado — the story was different. There, CREDO found “significantly higher gains for charter school students than would have occurred in traditional public schools.”
In the body of the report, however, the researchers suggest that Illinois does not really belong on that list. The CREDO study finds that the reading performance of charter school and public school students in Illinois is not significantly different. The math performance of Illinois’ charter school students is only “marginally” better than public school students.
In Missouri, which it ranks as one of the top two states for charter school performance in reading and math, CREDO does not take into consideration accounting manipulations and political factors that may provide explanations for the performance gap.
In February 2007, then St. Louis Supt. Diana Bourisaw reported cases of student “dumping” by charter schools. One charter school expelled nearly 30 students that month, and sent them all to the public school system. The charter school management company said it expelled all the students for discipline problems.
The timing was significant, says William Purdy, a longtime school board member and former school principal. Missouri’s state education department takes a head count in January to determine how much money each school should get each month from January through June. State-mandated academic tests are given to students in March and April. Purdy says that the state grades each school according to how well students, who are enrolled in at the time of the test, do on the test. The state does not consider whether a student enrolled just a week before the test or months before.
By expelling troublesome students to traditional public schools in February, a charter school would get paid to educate those students without actually bearing the full costs of doing so, and they would avoid having their test scores entered into the school’s average, he says. Instead, those test scores would count against a traditional public school. That is why Bourisaw advocated that the state Department of Education change its regulations to apply a student’s test scores to whatever school in which the student was enrolled the longest during the year instead of to the school in which the student was enrolled the latest.
Purdy says the CREDO study noted another difference between charter schools and traditional public schools in Missouri that might affect academic gains, but without apparently taking it into account in the analysis of school performance. CREDO notes that Missouri charter schools enroll proportionately far fewer special education students than do traditional public schools — 6 percent compared to a statewide average of 16 percent of students in traditional public schools.
Proportionately, traditional public schools in Missouri have almost three times as many students with learning disabilities as do charter schools. CREDO determined that charter schools don’t do any better at teaching reading to special education students — and do worse at teaching math — than Missouri’s traditional public schools, but Purdy says it did not seem to factor that into its conclusion that “all students” as a group learned more at charter schools than “all students” as a group did at traditional public schools.
At the same time as charter schools shifted troublesome and harder-to-teach students to public schools, politicians shifted money away from public schools to charter schools.
In August 2006, St. Louis Public Schools filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Louis alleging that the City, which collected all local taxes, was withholding tax monies due to the schools. It took nearly a year, but the schools won that lawsuit and, after appealing, the city was eventually forced to pay. The City’s withholding of school taxes but the school system in a financial vise, as Enos Moss, chief financial officer of St. Louis Public Schools, explains. While the City withheld local tax money from the school system, the state education department deducted the amount of the local tax money due to charter schools directly from state payments due to the public school system.
At the same time as the City was withholding money from traditional public schools, it was funneling millions of dollars to private and charter schools. Some of that spending only came to light with the release, on June 22, 2009, of a state audit of some City departments.
All of that took place against a backdrop in which charter school supporters captured a majority of the St. Louis Board of Education and, until they lost their bids for re-election, systematically worked to dismantle successful teaching programs in traditional public schools while simultaneously promoting charter schools.
CREDO does not examine whether the reported charter school performance in Missouri is genuine or rigged. Even including Missouri’s questionable numbers, CREDO finds that nationwide, only 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, but more than twice as many — 37 percent of charter schools — showed gains that were significantly worse than traditional public school, and 46 percent of charter schools demonstrated no significant difference from traditional public schools. CREDO does not provide a similar breakdown for each state.
“If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters,” says Margaret E. Raymond, CREDO director. “That’s a red flag.”
While some people might think that any policy that harms more people than it helps is a failure, President Barack Obama and his advisors do not agree. The Obama administration remains committed to expanding charter schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold federal education money from 36 states unless they increase enrollment in charter schools. — Peter Downs (email@example.com)
Peter Downs, a writer and editor based in St. Louis, is the elected president of the St. Louis City school board. His look at how a private management firm wrecked the public schools — “This is reform?” — was published March 1.