Charter-school ‘evaluation’ reads like boosterism

The State Board of Education released its first report on Indiana charter school outcomes this month. The report includes a lot of information, but overall it reads more like pro-charter advocacy than the “formal evaluation” the state legislature requested.

The report claims to compare charter schools with public schools serving similar students and concludes that “brick-and-mortar” charter schools generally do a better job. But it uses a questionable methodology and leaves out important details and performance criteria. Tellingly, it cites pro-charter sources as authorities and unquestioningly adopts talking points about “innovation” and “autonomy.”

The report sets the tone at the start, boasting that “leading experts rank Indiana No. 1” for charter schools. But the only expert it cites is the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an organization that exists to promote charter schools and that gives Indiana A’s for its charter school support.

“The way it leads off, grading the law — it definitely comes across as kind of a cheerleading piece,” said Indiana University education professor Chris Lubienski, who reviewed the report last week.

Here are a few issues:

Methodology – To compare charter schools with public schools, the report creates a group of “like” public schools that are supposed to be similar to charter schools. The comparison group is all the public schools in 15 school districts that enroll the most students in charter schools.

But that’s not a very precise match. About a third of Indiana’s charter schools aren’t located in those districts. Only four of the 15 districts enroll more than 10 percent of their students in charter schools.

Josh Gillespie, director of external affairs for the State Board of Education, said there may be drawbacks to the methodology but it’s a reasonable approach.

“Without the capacity to do a statistically valid, peer-to-peer comparison, this model was found to be an effective way to transparently evaluate performance,” he said by email.

Lubienski called the approach “an unfortunate shortcut.” There are ways to use enrollment and demographic data to accurately compare public and charter schools, he said, even if it’s not simple.

“And still you can’t control for the fact that families of the kids going to charter schools took the initiative to choose a school. That selection bias is very important,” said Lubienski, co-author of a book that examines the research on charter school and public school effectiveness.

School grades – The report says charter schools “outperformed like-public schools” in Indiana’s A-to-F grading system; it says 20 percent of charter schools but only 11 percent of like-public schools earned A’s in 2016-17. But it fails to mention that some charter schools were held to a different standard.

Five of the 14 charter schools that received A’s were evaluated on test-score growth only, an option for schools in their first three years of operation. If they had been evaluated on both growth and performance, as are nearly all public schools, none would have had an A. Two would have had F’s.

Without those five A’s, there would be little difference in grades between charter and public schools. Yet the report doesn’t mention that schools are graded differently.

Demographics – The report says charter schools enroll more students who identify as a minority or who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals than comparable public schools. In fact, the data show very little difference by free and reduced lunch. Charter schools enroll more black students but fewer Hispanic and multiracial students than comparable public schools. Charter schools enroll fewer English learners but about the same percentage of special-needs students as public schools.

But there is great variation among students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and special education. Special education can mean anything from mild speech delays to severe mental disabilities.

“We know from other research that kids with costly special education needs tend to be in traditional public schools,” Lubienski said. “And kids in the greatest degree of poverty tend to be in public schools.”

Funding – The report emphasizes that charter schools get less public funding than public schools. It notes that local property-tax levies, available to public schools but not charter schools, are the “key driver of funding disparities.”

Remarkably, though, it doesn’t mention that public schools use local property taxes almost exclusively for transportation and facilities. Charter schools aren’t required to provide transportation and typically don’t. For facility needs, they may rely on philanthropy and low-cost loans.

The board cites the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which gave Indiana F’s for charter-school funding fairness. Reviews by the National Education Policy, which supports democratic governance of public education, found the Arkansas reports to be “not valid or useful.”

What’s missing — With all the focus on test scores and school grades, you would expect the report to compare high-school graduation rates between charter and public schools. It doesn’t. You won’t learn from the report that Indiana Virtual School, a large online charter school, had a graduation rate of 6.5 percent last year. Or that, as Chalkbeat Indiana reported, the school funneled millions of dollars to a for-profit company run by its founder.

The State Board of Education report does include some useful details: 24 charter schools have closed since 2011; enrollment growth has been about 3 to 4 percent per year; the biggest concentrations of charter students are in Indianapolis and Gary; virtual and hybrid charter schools perform considerably worse than either public schools or brick-and-mortar charter schools.

But you would expect a “formal evaluation” requested by the legislature and produced by a state agency to be thorough, fair and scrupulously objective. This report isn’t.

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