20 years on, have charter schools met their goals?

/ 3 June 2012 / jennifer

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, June 3, 2012 –

Two decades after the first charter school opened in St. Paul, the popularity of school choice continues to grow. But student achievement and success at the these nontraditional schools varies widely.

A new report from the Center for School Change, an advocate for charter schools and improving public education, shows charter school enrollment nearly quadrupled statewide over the past decade.

“Families are looking for something different,” said Joe Nathan, director of the center. The growing numbers show how successful the charter movement has become, he said. Charter schools started in Minnesota and now are in 40 states with more than 2 million students nationwide.

“I think one of the central principles of our country is that families ought to have high-quality education choices,” Nathan said.

Like public schools, charters are funded by taxpayers, but they are freed from many of the typical rules and regulations, allowing them to be more innovative. They are open to everyone, although high demand has made some use a lottery-based admission.

Nathan also pointed to charter schools’ diversification. While his report shows charters still primarily enroll poor students of color, Nathan finds some interesting changes in the demographics of charters in St. Paul: The number of white suburban students attending is growing.

That leads Nathan to believe that by replicating proven academic practices, charters can not only be an alternative to a struggling school, they can attract students from high-performing schools.

Yet, critics of the charter movement say there is little evidence to back such assertions. “It has been shown for 20 years that charters systematically underperform public schools and cause public schools to be more segregated than they would otherwise,” said Myron Orfield, executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. “There are always going to be a couple of good ones, but there are 10 times as many bad ones.”

Orfield has produced his own research that shows charter schools in the Twin Cities perform worse than traditional schools at every income level. He is specifically critical of “intentionally segregated” charters, schools that cater predominately to one race or ethnic group.

“They have really been a catastrophe,” Orfield said. “All the data shows it doesn’t work. Integration is the best way to reduce the achievement gap.”

Bill Wilson, executive director of Higher Ground Academy, a school of predominately East African students, disagrees that his school is segregated in the traditional sense. Nathan’s group now shares office space with the school.

“Segregation is imposed on people. That is what the Supreme Court struck down,” Wilson said. “The people I am seeing are choosing the quality of education.”

They also chose the school because of familiar cultures, he said.

Nathan’s study shows charters have long catered to low-income, minority students. Half of charter school enrollment statewide is poor students of color; in the Twin Cities it is closer to two-thirds.

Yet, in St. Paul, that trend appears to be changing. The percentage of minority students and those qualifying for free or reduced-priced meals, a federal poverty indicator, are again higher in the traditional public schools than the charter schools in the district.

Nathan sees this as an indicator of success, but others aren’t so sure.

State data interpreted under Minnesota’s new multiple measurement rating of schools shows the achievement results of charters are mixed. The new system equally weighs grade-level proficiency, reduction of the achievement gap between poor, minority and white students, academic growth, and graduation rates for high schools.

Eighteen charters are among the system’s top “Reward Schools” — 128 strongly performing units with high enough minority and poor student population that they receive federal funding.

The lion’s share of charters, however, received low scores on the new state rankings, and some had too little data to rank. But only nine charters are classified as the state’s worst-performing “Priority Schools” and two as “Focus Schools” that contribute to closing the achievement gap.

Nathan believes the state ranking system only tells part of the story regarding achievement at charter schools.

“We have to be careful with the measurements we use,” he said, adding the new system was a mixed improvement. “I think we can do better.”

One point charter advocates like Nathan and critics like Orfield can agree on is that, over the past two decades, charters have had a growing impact on public schools.

Orfield believes they offer false hope to students who already have limited options.

“These kids are leaving bad public schools and going to worse charter schools. They don’t last, and they are getting an inferior education,” Orfield said. “They are basically gutting the finances of larger city schools.”

Nathan sees charters not as a direct alternative to public schools but as educational options where students who may struggle elsewhere can thrive. Choice, for Nathan, is key to providing each student with the right opportunities.

“There is no one single way to educate a student,” Nathan said. “We have wasted too much money arguing over which is better: charter or traditional.”

Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him attwitter.com/cmaganPiPress.