On charter schools, the ‘story is in the variation’

Macke Raymond tends to have a favorable view of charter schools, but she’s quick to point out the sector includes effective schools and others that are not so good.

“The story is in the variation,” Raymond, director of Stanford’s CREDO and the author of the best-known studies of charter schools, told an Indiana University audience recently.

That’s true in Indiana, where a lot of variation seems tied to who authorized the schools. A 2012 CREDO study found that schools authorized by the mayor of Indianapolis did better than other charter schools, most of them authorized by Ball State University.

A look at high-poverty schools – where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – shows the pattern held for ISTEP results in 2013, the last year for which scores are available. Over 70 percent of students in mayor-sponsored schools passed the tests, compared with less than 60 percent in other charters.

charter-schools-by-authorizer

This slicing of the data follows a post last month that found high-poverty district schools had better test results than high-poverty charter schools. Someone suggested comparing high-poverty charter schools with urban district schools, because most high-poverty charter schools are in cities. So I did; with Indianapolis Public Schools.

Compared to all high-poverty charter schools – those in Indy and elsewhere – IPS schools do better in math and worse in English/language arts.

IPS-charter-chart

District schools tend to serve more English language learners than charter schools. This could have something to do with the discrepancy between English and math results. But what really jumped out was the difference in test-score results between mayor-sponsored and other charter schools.

Let’s pause now and note that these comparisons show only passing rates for standardized tests in math and English. That’s an extremely narrow measure, which can obviously be misleading. But if charter schools are supposed to help close the achievement gap for poor and minority students, it’s a place to start.

It’s also arguable that charter schools can cause harm even when they do good. They can pull money, students and parents away from traditional public schools and undercut support for democratic public education. “School choice” reinforces the idea that education is not a public good, in which we all have an interest, but a private product, where parents should get the best deal for their own kids.

Suppose we put the energy into improving traditional public schools that we’ve put into fighting over charter schools. Might the overall gains have been better?

On the other hand, charter schools aren’t going away, least of all in Indiana. Students will be better served if more of them are effective and fewer of them are ineffective.

Raymond, in her talk at IU, said a key lesson from her research is that state policy matters. States that set a high bar for charter school authorizers are likely to see better results than those, like Arizona, where “if you have a pulse and you can sign a paper, you can get a charter.”

She added that charter schools that start out weak aren’t likely to get better, so it’s best to close them sooner rather than later, as the mayor’s office has done. But that’s now less likely to happen in Indiana, thanks to 2011 legislation that extended charter authority to private colleges and universities.

Ball State declined last year to renew the charters of several underperforming schools. But the schools stayed open, either as charter schools with new authorizers or as private schools relying on taxpayer-funded vouchers.

Until 2012, Indiana’s charter-school record was better than most, CREDO found  — largely because the state wasn’t letting just anyone in the game. That may be changing.

 

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