Charter-school study ‘one piece to the picture’

Indiana students lost ground academically after they transferred from public schools to charter schools, according to a new study by Indiana University education professors.

The students tended to catch up with their peers if they stayed in their charter school long enough. But here’s the rub: many did not. The study found that nearly half of the charter-school students returned to public schools within three years after leaving them.

The results don’t mean that charter schools are doing a bad job, said Hardy Murphy, a clinical professor in the IU School of Education in Indianapolis and one of the authors. Research has shown that students are likely to fall behind any time they move from one school to another.

“The problem is, charter schools were created as an option where that sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen,” Murphy said. “It’s about the expectations and how they’ve been marketed.”

The researchers presented the study, “Unfulfilled Promises: Transfer to a Charter School and Student Achievement in Indiana,” at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York. Along with Murphy, authors are Gary Pike, Patricia Rogan and Demetrees Hutchins.

They analyzed ISTEP testing data for Indiana students who attended a public school in 2011-12, then transferred to a charter school in 2012-13, and compared the performance of transfer students to what would have been expected had they stayed in public schools. The study did not include virtual or online charter schools, which typically produce lower test scores than brick-and-mortar schools.

On average, students who switched to charter schools had significantly lower gains in English-language arts in the year after they transferred and significantly lower gains in math for two years after they transferred. The trend of falling behind for a year or two, then catching up later, is similar to what other researchers found in a study of Indiana students who used vouchers to transfer to private schools.

Murphy said it surprised him that so many students returned to public schools: 22 percent returned after one year, another 14.5 percent after two years and another 11 percent after three years. Researchers don’t know why the students returned, he said.

In addition to his academic role, Murphy is executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association. The group is made up of school districts that compete with charter schools, and their leaders are likely to cheer the findings. But Murphy said the results shouldn’t be used to bash charter schools.

“We have good schools that are charter schools — we know that,” he said. “And we have charter schools that need to be improved. We also have good traditional public schools that don’t get credit they deserve.”

It’s true that losing students and funding to charter schools is a problem for some public schools, he said. You can see that especially in districts like Indianapolis Public Schools, where 28 percent of students attend charter schools, and Gary, where the figure is 43 percent.

But the bigger issue, Murphy said, is that school funding hasn’t kept pace with needs. Indiana ranks 36th among the states in per-pupil school funding, according to an analysis of census data. Its teacher salaries have shrunk by 15 percent since 2000, adjusted for inflation.

Viewed that way, he said, charter schools that compete for limited resources are a symptom of the problem that public schools face, not the problem itself.

The study may help debunk claims that charter schools are the answer, but it should also highlight the challenge of helping students who move from one school to another for whatever reason.

“This is one more piece to the picture,” Murphy said. “I don’t think this study is the complete picture.”

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