New Study Shows At-risk Charter School Students Outperform Those in Exclusive Schools

David DorseyEducation

There is no shortage of those critical of charter schools, and most of their criticism is baseless. The doubting-Thomases like to claim that charter schools drain money from traditional public schools.  Reviews of charter school funding from coast to coast show otherwise. They claim charter schools do not take special education or other special needs students – also not true. They point to an incident or two of fraud or fiscal mismanagement, which they use as a justification that all charter schools should go away. If that same standard were held to traditional public schools, there would be no public education as we know it. They believe all charter schools are for-profit businesses and equate them with the robber barons of the 19th century. In fact, only 13% of all charter schools across the country are for-profit organizations – two-thirds of all charters are non-profit single-site schools. A review of KPI’s Facebook page comments shows that many opposed to charter school don’t even know charters are actually public schools. And they ignore the fact that low-income and minority students use charter schools to escape chronically poor performing traditional schools and show significant improvement in achievement.

When begrudgingly acknowledging research that shows charter schools do better than traditional public schools, their response is always the same: charter schools cherry-pick students so real comparisons cannot be made. They say that traditional public schools, unlike charter schools have to take ‘whomever walks through the door.’

What if there were public schools that DON’T take anyone who walks in the door? What if there were a group of public schools that intentionally cherry-pick? And what would happen if achievement of those students were compared to charter schools? Well, it just so happens that a new study just released by the Manhattan Institute (New York, not Kansas) did just that.

The New York City public school system has 98 traditional middle schools that “selectively select” their students. To get into these schools – Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, Isaac Newton Middle School for Math and Science, Young Women’s Leadership School of Brooklyn and Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts to name just four – eligibility is determined on a variety of factors such as behavior, test scores, attendance, punctuality, writing, entrance exams and interview, among others depending on the type of school. The following graphic provides a demographic snapshot of all three types of public middle schools in New York City.

One interesting note from this graphic is that charter demographics aren’t much different from the other two types of schools – except that charters have a much higher percentage of African American students.

Unlike the selective schools, the New York City public charters cannot use discerning criteria. In fact, when demand exceeds supply at a charter, as if often the case, the school must choose by lottery. Given that fact, one would expect the 98 selective schools to outperform their charter counterparts. But the study’s author, Marcus Winter, found charter school students fared quite well compared to those in the selective schools:

  • Not surprisingly, overall student population of the selective schools scored slightly better than the charter school students in English Language Arts, but both populations did about the same in math.
  • However, when controlling for socioeconomic status, at-risk charter students outperformed those in the selective schools in both math and ELA.
  • Both the selective schools and charter schools outperformed the traditional nonselective schools.

There is a message in this study for Kansas, which as of this writing still has the distinction of being home to the worst charter school law in the country. The demographics of the New York City charter schools aren’t much different from that of many urban schools here in Kansas, both having a disproportionate share of at-risk students. Given that the huge increases in the level of at-risk funding in Kansas have failed to make a dent in achievement gaps of low-income students, why deny our students the same opportunity as their counterparts across the country? It’s time for the Legislature to step up to the plate and do something about it.

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