I wasn’t going to write about how Indiana charter schools fared this year under the state’s school grading system. But then Gov. Mike Pence released his 2015 legislative agenda, which calls for doubling down on charter schools and vouchers. So here goes.
We’ve had charter schools for over a decade in Indiana, and there’s no evidence they are better than schools run by public school districts. They aren’t a magic bullet. Some charter schools are effective and some aren’t. Just like your local public schools.
And when measured by Indiana’s school grading system – which the governor likes to cite in calling for more high-quality schools — charter schools aren’t better.
Looking at all schools in the state, there’s a huge gap. Among all public schools*, 74 percent were awarded an A or B, and only 9 percent got a D or F. Among all Indiana charter schools that received grades, only 35 percent got an A or B and 60 percent got a D or F. (Fifteen charter schools were not graded, typically because they were new and couldn’t show student growth on test scores).
How about if we compare all charter schools with public schools in those cities? Some 42 percent got an A or B; 36 percent got a D or F. Charter schools still aren’t keeping up. (For public schools in Indianapolis, this chart includes only Indianapolis Public Schools, not township schools. Most Indy charters are in the IPS area).
At the state level, the big push for charter schools has come from business and political leaders in the state capital, with a focus on creating alternatives to IPS. The Indianapolis mayor’s office can authorize charter schools, as can colleges and universities and the Indiana Charter School Board.
But charter schools in Indy don’t really outperform IPS schools. Among IPS schools, 35 percent got an A or B and 51 percent got a D or F. Among Indianapolis charter schools, 36 percent got an A or B and 53 percent got a D or F. No real difference.
It’s true, as City of Indianapolis charter schools director Brandon Brown rightly points out, that authorizers matter when it comes to charter school effectiveness. The mayor’s schools have a better record than those authorized by Ball State, for example.
That’s partly because the mayor’s office has been aggressive about closing charter schools that underperform. But closing schools after families make a commitment to them brings its own set of issues; witness the unhappiness over the closing of the Indy Project and Flanner House schools.
All of this isn’t to say that charter schools are bad or that they may not sometimes serve a purpose. But Pence’s suggestion that Indiana should invest more of its limited education funds in charter schools seems at odds with the evidence.
An alternative would be to do what Democratic state Rep. Greg Porter has suggested: Pause, re-evaluate, figure out what’s working and what isn’t. And recognize that charter schools may not be the great boon for education that some people continue to think.
*For simplicity’s sake, I use the term “public schools” to refer to schools operated by public school districts. We can argue over whether charter schools should be called public schools. But they aren’t public in the sense of being run by school boards that are accountable to the public. As always, readers are encouraged to check the calculations and point out any errors in this post — or simply to disagree.