AFTER READING THIS, PLEASE SEE CORRECTIONS AT: https://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/charter-averages-worse-than-originally-estimated/
If one watches the trailer clips from the Cartel movie on two highly successful New Jersey charter schools, one might be misled to believe that Charter schools are simply uniformly freakin’ awesome. They can do no wrong. They are clearly the answer to all of our problems in urban schooling in New Jersey. Indeed there is some, if not much solid empirical research literature out there which finds favorable results for charter schools and much which finds that charters on average, are pretty much a break even option.
For an exceptional review of charter school research, I would recommend Robert Bifulco and Katrina Bulkley’s chapter on Charter Schools in the Handbook of Research on Education Finance and Policy. Neither of these scholars are charter school naysayers, yet they conclude:
Research to date provides little evidence that the benefits envisioned in the original conceptions of charter schools – organizational and educational innovation, improved student achievement, and enhanced efficiency – have materialized.”
I am also not a Charter school naysayer, having written in my own previous work that leaders of charter schools seem more likely to recruit or select teachers with stronger academic credentials than traditional public schools in the same state. But, I’m also a realist when I look at data on charter schools, their students and their outcomes.
For starters, let’s look at how New Jersey charter schools begin with a public subsidy disadvantage – which may explain some of the mixed results that follow. Current expenditures from NJDOE annual financial reports through 2005, show charters spending less than many districts, organized by factor group (A being generally poor urban districts, through I & J, being relatively affluent suburbs).
In many parts of the country, Charter schools make up for this difference with private fund raising. In fact, most infrastructure costs are covered by such fund raising especially where states fail to provide any facilities support to charter schools. A few years back, I was able to compile the tax returns of the non-profits that support Washington DC charters to show that they received, on average, 14% of their revenue through private contributions. I ran an extract the other day of New Jersey Charter school IRS 990 forms, but few reported their data. Still working on that.
Now, on to the raw outcomes of charter schools in New Jersey based on 2008 assessments. Again, based on the cherry picking in the Cartel movie, one would think that all charters in NJ are kicking butt like North Star Academy. However, prior Charter research and the logic of deregulation lead to more realistic assumptions that – some do well – some not so well – and on average, there may be little difference (if the system, either the “market” or the accountability system, does not shut down those who do not do well). Under less regulation one would simply expect more dispersion. Higher highs perhaps, but also lower lows.
Here’s a quick run down. I begin with the “averages” by grade level and by district factor group. Here’s the % proficient or advanced by DFG, with Charters labeled “R.”
Charter schools, most though not all of which serve relatively poor student populations, hang right down there, across grade levels with DFG A and B poor schools – especially at both the beginning and end grades. Charters look little different when viewing only those who score advanced and higher.
Okay, so these are the averages which conceal the really fun and interesting variations and drag down the superstars. Here’s the 3rd grade assessment data for two groups of schools – those in District Factor Group A and Charters. Schools are sorted by poverty. DFG A – Poor traditional publics are Blue Cirlces and Charters are hollow red diamonds.
In each case above, the schools are sorted by poverty along the horizontal axis and by proficiency rates on the vertical axis. In each case above, charters are represented by the red diamonds and traditional public schools including only those schools in the poorest district factor groups are represented as blue circles.
The bottom line is that Charter school performance varies widely and varies as widely as traditional public school performance in poor districts. What we do not know yet, because of lack of data is whether the successful charter schools are, in part, successful due to their ability to raise substantial additional resources for their schools. It may be the case that the unsuccessful charters – those that do much less well than even the worst traditional publics are suffering from lack of resources.
Sadly, rather than address these real, substantive issues, organizations such as NJ E3 and individuals like Bob Bowdon have decided to pitch a load of baseless propaganda on public audiences that deserve better. In fact, by pitching this schlock that all charters can do no harm (just look at these 2 really awesome ones!), ignorant pundits like Bowdon are arguably compromising the market decisions of parents – leading them to believe that all charters must necessarily be better than all traditional publics. Market decisions must be based on good information regarding product quality. In this case, it would appear that at least some pundits are creating a new “market for lemons” (knowingly marketing bad charters) at the expense of parents and children for purely political gain (or to sell movie tickets and build reputation). This sales pitch may encourage parents to continue choosing low performing charters, sustaining those schools and holding down the charter average – making the case for charters harder to argue.