There now exists a fair amount of evidence that Charter schools in many locations, especially high performing charter schools in New Jersey and New York tend to serve much smaller shares of low income, special education and limited English proficient students (see various links that follow). And in some cases, high performing charter schools, especially charter middle schools, experience dramatic attrition between 6th and 8th grade, often the same grades over which student achievement climbs, suggesting that a “pushing out” form of attrition is partly accounting for charter achievement levels.
As I’ve stated many times on this blog, the extent to which we are concerned about these issues is a matter of perspective. It is entirely possible that a school – charter, private or otherwise – can achieve not only high performance levels but also greater achievement growth by serving a selective student population, including selection of students on the front end and attrition of students along the way. After all, one of the largest “within school effects on student performance” is the composition of the peer group.
From a parent (or child) perspective, one is relatively unconcerned whether the positive school effect is function of selectivity of peer group and attrition, so long as there is a positive effect.
But, from a public policy perspective, the model is only useful if the majority of positive effects are not due to peer group selectivity and attrition, but rather to the efficacy and transferability of the educational models, programs and strategies. To put it very bluntly, charters (or magnet schools) cannot dramatically improve overall performance in low income communities by this approach, because there simply aren’t enough less poor, fluent English speaking, non-disabled children to go around. They are not a replacement for the current public system, because their successes are in many cases based on doing things they couldn’t if they actually tried to serve everyone.
Again, this is not to say that some high performing charters aren’t essentially effective magnet school programs that do provide improved opportunities for select few. But that’s what they are.
But rather than acknowledging these issues and recognizing charters and their successes for what they are (or aren’t), charter pundits have developed a series of very intriguing (albeit largely unfounded) defensive responses (read excuses) to the available data. These include the arguments that:
- Lotteries don’t discriminate and charters have to use lotteries, therefore they couldn’t possibly discriminate!
- Charters only appear to have fewer children with disabilities because they actually just provide better, more inclusive programming and choose not to label kids who would get labeled in the public system! In particular, charters do so much better at early grades interventions that they keep kids out of special education in later grades!
- While one might think charters are advantaged by having fewer low income children, in reality, Charters suffer significantly from “negative selection.” That is, the parents who choose charters are invariably the parents of kids who are having the most trouble in the public system.
- While it appears that Charter middle schools have high rates of attrition between 6th and 8th grade, all schools really do. Charters are no different.
- The data are always biased against charters and never in their favor on these issues.
The foundation for these arguments is flimsy in some cases, and manipulative in others.
1. Lotteries don’t discriminate
True, lotteries alone don’t, really can’t discriminate. They are random draws. Among those students whose parents enter them into a lottery for a specific school, those who get picked should be comparable to those who don’t picked. But that does not by any stretch of the imagination – or by much of the available data – mean that those who end up in charter schools through the lottery system are in any way representative of students who live in the surrounding neighborhoods or attend traditional public schools in the local district.
In other words:
Lotteried In = Lotteried Out
Not the same as:
Charter School Enrollment = Nearby Public School Enrollment
Why aren’t these the same? Well, those who enter the lottery to begin with are only a subset of those who might otherwise attend the local public schools. That subset can be influenced by a number of things, including quite simply, the motivation of a parent to sign up for the lottery, or parental impression regarding the “fit” of the school to the child. So, if the lottery pool is selective, then those lotteried into charters are merely a random group of the selective group.
Pundits frequently point to lottery based studies of charter school effects to make their case that lotteries don’t discriminate and that therefore charter schools serve the same students as traditional public schools.
Richard Ferris and I, in our recent study of New York City Charters note:
As one would expect, Hoxby found no differences between those who were randomly selected and those who entered the lottery but were not selected. This is not the same, however, as saying that the overall population in the charter schools is demographically similar to comparison groups or non-charter public school students. While they do compare the demographics of the charter “applicant pool” to those of the city schools as a whole (see Hoxby‟s Table IIA, page II-2),30 they never compare charter enrollment demographics with those the nearest similar schools or even schools citywide serving the same grade ranges.
2. Charters are just better at dealing with children with disabilities in their regular programs and therefore don’t classify them
This story takes two different forms:
Version 1: Charters simply don’t identify kids because they provide better inclusive programming
This is perhaps conceivable when addressing children with mild specific learning disabilities and/or mild behavioral problems, but much less likely to be the case where more severe disabilities are concerned. In New Jersey and in New York City, many charter schools serve few or no children with disabilities (see: https://schoolfinance101.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/charter-special-ed-2007.jpg ). This can only be accomplished if the only children with disabilities who were present to begin with were those with only the mildest disabilities – making declassification reasonable. Perhaps more importantly, while charter advocates make this claim, I am aware of no rigorous large scale or even individual case study research that provides any validation of this claim.
Version 2: Charters provide better early intervention programs such that by third grade, children don’t need to be classified when they reach the grades where they typically would be classified.
I’ve only heard this argument on a few occasions and it is simply a variation on the first argument. But this argument has important additional holes in it that make it even more suspect than the first argument. Most notably, very large shares of charter schools including charter schools with disproportionately low shares of children with disabilities are charter schools that don’t have lower grades – and serve upper elementary to middle grades. In fact, nationally, 44% of charters start after 3rd grade, and in New Jersey, for example, these are the schools with very low rates of children classified for special education services.
Perhaps more importantly, while charter advocates make this claim, I am aware of no rigorous large scale or individual case study research that provides any validation of this claim.
3. Not only do charters not cream skim, they actually are disadvantaged by negative selection!
That is, among poor children or among non-poor children, some statistical models show a small effect of the average entry performance of those choosing charters to be lower. Actually, the only potential validation I can find of this is from a study of high school charter schools in Florida (and a similar study of high school voucher recipients in Florida), though some other studies speculate the existence of a small negative selection effect without strong empirical validation.
But even if we see negative selection, as typically reported in these studies, we have to consider what it is that is being reported. Typically, what is being reported is:
Initial Performance of Non-Disadvantaged Students in Charters <= Initial Performance of Non-Disadvantaged Students in Traditional Publics
Initial Performance of Disadvantaged Students in Charters <= Initial Performance of Disadvantaged Students in Traditional Publics
And across other categories of student needs (to the extent the attend charters). This could be problematic for making statistical comparisons where one is only able to control for various disadvantages but not to capture the fact that there may be some “negative selection” within these groups (lower initial performance). That would create model bias that works to the disadvantage of charters.
But that’s not what the pundits are claiming. This punditry is rather like the punditry about lotteries not discriminating. The above comparisons do not address the simpler issue of:
% Disadvantaged in Charters < % Disadvantaged in Traditional Public Schools
Rather, they compare initial achievement only among subgroups.
If the traditional public school 90% low income and 10% non-low income and the charter school is only 50% low income and 50% non-low income, the populations are still different – significantly and substantially. The entry performance of the 50% low income is being compared to the entry performance of the 90% low income in the traditional public school. But this does not address the fact that the schools are, overall, very different and the average entry performance of the groups overall are very different. That is, cream-skimming is indeed occurring on the basis of income and of other factors and as a result on the basis of entry performance in across all groups, but charters aren’t necessarily getting the strongest students within those groups.
4. Traditional public schools have attrition too
This is largely true, but with a few qualifiers attached. In general, children residing in lower income communities tend to make more unplanned moves from school year to school year and even during school years. So, mobility is a problem in high poverty settings and it is perhaps reasonable to assume that these poverty induced – housing disruption induced – mobility patterns affect both traditional public school and charter students in some settings. But, this is only one component of mobility and attrition in the urban schooling setting.
This has been a hot topic lately to some extent because a report released by Gary Miron which used national school enrollment data to look at attrition patterns in KIPP middle schools. Many who immediately shot back at Miron cited the KIPP study done by Mathematica which was able to more precisely address which students were “retained” versus which actually left. Of course, Gary Miron also cited this study and explained that it had greater precision in some respects, but further explained how in his own calculations it was simply infeasible that all of the attrition could be explained by retention. That is, that the entire difference between the size of the 8th grade cohorts and 6th grade cohorts could be attributed to holding kids back in 6th grade. Unfortunately, while the original Mathematica KIPP study provided some additional insights, it did not provide sufficient disaggregation or precision in explaining the different types of mobility and attrition occurring across KIPP and nearby public schools.
Mathematica subsequently released a more detailed descriptive analysis of student mobility and attrition, which did largely confirm similar aggregate rates of attrition between KIPP and matched public schools. But, while this study does allay some of the concerns regarding perceptions of attrition in KIPP schools, further untangling of inter-school within district mobility is warranted, and the findings that pertain to KIPP middle schools in the Mathematica analysis do not necessarily pertain to any and all charter schools or host districts showing comparable attrition rates.
5. The Data are Always/Only Biased against Charters (never in their favor)
This is one of my favorites because I love data, but recognize their fallibility. The data are what they are. There may be explanations for why one set of schools is more or less likely to have accurate data than another, and why these differences may compromise comparisons. But the data are what they are, with all relevant caveats attached. What is NOT reasonable is to use the existing data to make a comparison, find that the result isn’t what you wanted it to be, and then explain why the data aren’t what they are… but do so without alternative data.
For example, it is unreasonable to compare host district rates of special education classification and charter special education classification, find that charters have far fewer classified students, and then only provide reasons why the charter classification rates must be wrong… implying that despite what the data say… there really aren’t differences in classification rates… or in ELL/LEP concentrations… or in low income student concentrations. Yes, there may be problems with the data, but data proof speculation about those problems with corrections applying only to the favor of charters is unhelpful and dishonest.
Hoxby & Murarka spend two pages here making arguments for why the dramatically lower reported rates of special education and ELL students in New York charter schools simply must be wrong – systematically under-reported. While some of their arguments may be true and seem reasonable, there is no clear evidence to support their implied argument that in spite of the data, we should assume that charters are actually comparable to traditional public schools. Rather, the data they use shows a finding they don’t like – a finding that NYC charters appear to under-serve ELL children and children with disabilities.
One example of a common data bias that does cut the other way, as I’ve shown on multiple occasions, occurs when comparing rates of low income students in charters and traditional public schools if only comparing those who qualify for “free or reduced price lunch.” When this measure is used alone, charters often do look the same as nearby traditional public schools (at least in NY and NJ). But, when a lower income threshold is used, we see that charters actually serve far fewer of the poorer students. The “free or reduced lunch” data are insufficient for the comparison, and the bias makes charters look more comparable than they really are.
Oh, and finally: Charter schools are public schools! Or are they?
Charter pundits get particularly irked when anyone expresses as a dichotomy “charter schools vs. public schools,” referring to charter schools versus “traditional” district schools. Charter pundits will often immediately interrupt to correct the speaker’s supposed error, proclaiming ever so decisively – “let’s get this straight first – CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE PUBLIC SCHOOLS!”
Well, at least in terms of liability under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, in cases involving employee dismissal (and deprivation of liberty interests w/o due process), the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that charter schools are not state actors. That is, at least in some regards, they are not public entities, even if they provide a “public” service. Or at least the companies responsible for managing them and their boards of directors are not held to the same standards as would official state actors – public officials and/or employees.
Horizon is a private entity that contracted with the state to provide students with educational services that are funded by the state. The Arizona statute, like the Massachusetts statute in Rendell-Baker, provides that the sponsor “may contract with a public body, private person or private organization for establishing a charter school,” Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 15- 183(B), to “provide additional academic choices for parents and pupils . . . [and] serve as alternatives to traditional public schools,” id. § 15-181(A). The Arizona legislature chose to provide alternative learning environments at public expense, but, as in Rendell-Baker, that “legislative policy choice in no way makes these services the exclusive province of the State.”
Merely because Horizon is “a private entity perform[ing] a function which serves the public does not make its acts state action.”