No magic to charter schools

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).

Statewide - croppedBut of course, that’s not a fair comparison. Charter schools tend to be located in urban areas, such as Indianapolis, Evansville, Fort Wayne, Gary, Hammond and South Bend.

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).

Urban Schools - croppedOK, what if we compare schools serving high-poverty populations? Let’s look at schools where at least 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Among public schools in that category, 44 percent got an A or B and 35 percent got a D or F. Among high-poverty charter schools, 20 percent got an A or B and 72 percent got a D or F.

High-poverty Schools- croppedAt 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.

Indianapolis - croppedIt’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.

12 thoughts on “No magic to charter schools

  1. Steve,
    Your writing is so well written & logical. You explain with data that helps make issues in iIndiana’s public & charter schools clear. How I wish politicians in Indianapolis & business leaders across the state who are diligently working to privatize public education would look at data & think about what children in high poverty & all Indiana schools really need. It would be more appropriate if legislators , as stewards of our tax dollars, looked at how education could improve & in turn improve the lives of Indiana’s children. Their agenda, Iin my opinion, has nothing to do with what’s best practice in education. It’s simply a charter school business model designed to make parents & children consumers of education. If the school closes & parents have to scramble for a new school, well it’s no different from having to go to another store when your grocery is out of a specific product you need. The churn in the lives of high poverty kids means little. This tactic, along with sending our tax dollars to religious schools, is the ALEC model designed to end any & all public services.

    Public school rank & file teachers have put up little resistance to these efforts & I know the teachers unions in Indiana do not have the power that unions in other states may still have. Its illegal for Indiana teachers to strike. Wages & wage related benefits are all that’s legal to bargain. It’s a tough fight & teachers are weary. The power is with parents who must fight against the continuous test prep, testing, grading & punishing by their own legislators of their children’s public schools & teachers. I know parents are tired, too. Parents work long hours. Many work two jobs in order to make ends meet. It’s hard for them to fight back even if they are aware of what is slowly happening to their local public schools. There are more Indiana parents & grandparents of public school kids than legislators. iIf parents speak out & speak out often, maybe these legislators will listen. There is one thing these people care about above anything else & that’s to get reelected.


    • Thank you for putting into words, what I cannot. My children are almost out of high school so I worry what shambles might be left for my grand-children. Let me know if you run for office. I want to fly your flag!

      • Aw, thanks. Not likely I’ll ever run for office. But I’ll let you know if I do!

  2. Great post, Steve. I’d like to see this appear in newspapers across the state. We’ve been hearing a lot (ad nauseum) about data-driven decision making. Are our legislators willing to look at the data?

  3. Thank you for a clear article and graphics. I appreciate your attempt at fair comparisons. Well done. As a grandfather of four, two of whom are in school and two will be there in a few years, I am concerned about the charter school movement’s motives. It seems to me there are two primary motives dominating the movement; moving income and resources into private hands for the profit of a few, and, to eliminate one of the few remaining areas where unions still protect workers.

  4. What irony!

    On one hand, we’re told money won’t solve the problems in education.

    But charter school are underfunded. So they need more money like we are told we don’t need. OK.

    But charter school serve more at-risk students! I thought schools were accountable regardless of their clientele? No excuses. Accountability, right?

    Republicans believe in their education policy until they don’t.

    • No, public schools are underfunded. Charter schools receive more than most public schools, and public schools serve ALL students, at risk, to high achievers and everything in between. Plus, charter schools are a business venture and someone is profiting from them.

  5. Excellent post and smart comments as well. Do send this article to state newspapers, the governor, the mayor, and legislators. My three daughters attended IPS schools until the youngest went to high school, when she chose Herron HS. Herron has been good for her–small size, caring teachers. But there’s no reason there couldn’t be similar type high schools in public districts–that’s what magnet programs are for, and IPS was working on small high schools until administrators torpedoed the effort. Encourage public school districts to experiment, to give schools and teachers more autonomy, to use thoughtful research. Encourage everyone to go beyond test scores and school “grades” to find out what really works in a complex world.

  6. Well written & accurate article. Pence has no idea what works as he’s never been a teacher in good or poor school districts. It never fails education to come up w/ some hair-brained idea that lasts several years & everyone reverts back to the old technique minus some discipline It’s amazing that Hoosiers bought into ex-governor Mitch Daniels “tail” of the state supporting the schools ,which they did but they, the statehouse, took away the local control by underfunding everything & not letting the local communities adjust their tax base to provide the type of schools the communities wanted. They couldn’t take how some schools built nice schools, nice stadiums, etc. so they sold the Hoosier citizens a great story when they promised financial support for the schools. Daniels also brought in the corrupt state school director of education. Thankfully the teachers voted him out only to have the Republicans & Pence try everything possible to make her job impossible. I have generally voted Republican but w/ their behavior ,ideas, support for school funding, teachers salaries ,etc. it’s time we band together & make all laws apply to everyone in the same way & give the Democrats an opportunity to give control back to each & every school district. Incidentally, a state appointed school superintendent is totally wrong as it allows a select few to control everything & again takes away local control.

  7. Pingback: An open letter to Condoleezza Rice | School Matters

  8. Pingback: Conservative journal: Charter schools aren’t fulfilling promise | School Matters

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