It’s a Myth That Charter Schools Take Everybody

On March 30, Paul Krugman (the Princeton economist and NY Times opinion writer) wrote a column that introduced the concept of a zombie idea — “an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.”  There are a lot of these mythical, zombie ideas in the world of so-called education “reform,” with one of the most persistent being that charter schools do a better job of educating the very same population of children as are enrolled in the surrounding neighborhood public schools.

Charter laws differ from state to state, and most of the states say that charters can’t be selective.  If more children apply than there are spaces in the school, the school must hold a lottery.  Films like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman have turned these lotteries into rags-to-riches fairy tales.  But the fact is that charters rarely educate groups of children who are comparable to the population of children in the neighboring public schools.  Like traditional public schools today charter schools are evaluated by the test scores of the children enrolled.  Even though students and families are said to be choosing schools, there is a strong disincentive for any school to permit itself to become chosen by a large number of children whose scores are likely to be low.

Here is some of the evidence that disproves the myth that charters educate everybody:

In their new book, 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, Gene Glass and David Berliner describe Tucson, Arizona’s BASIS charter school where, “prospective students were asked to submit a long research paper, an original short story, or an essay on some historical figure they admire.  There were interviews of applicants and entrance tests.  Parents were asked to fill out a long survey….” (p. 24)

Just over a year ago, Stephanie Simon, writing for Reuters, in Class Struggle–How Charter Schools Get Students They Want, tried to kill the zombie idea that charters educate the very same kind of students as the neighboring public schools and are more successful.  Simon wrote: “Thousands of charter schools don’t provide subsidized lunches, putting them out of reach for families in poverty.  Hundreds mandate that parents spend hours doing ‘volunteer’ work for the school or risk losing their child’s seat… And from New Hampshire to California, charter schools large and small, honored and obscure, have developed complex application processes that can make it tough for students who struggle with disability, limited English skills, academic deficits or chaotic family lives to even get into the lottery.”  Simon then lists some of specific barriers: applications available only a few hours each year, lengthy application forms often printed only in English, requirements of student and parent essays, report cards, test scores, disciplinary records, mandatory family interviews, academic prerequisites, documentation of disabilities or special needs, and so on.  Enrollment caps ensure that late-comers will be turned away.

In January of this year, Policy Matters Ohio  studied the characteristics of top-rated, high scoring urban schools in Ohio, both public and charter.  Among the conclusions: “The overwhelming majority of highly rated district and charter schools served fewer students with disabilities than their home districts.” “High scorers had lower poverty rates.” “Most top-rated schools served fewer minority students.”  Low-scoring urban schools—public and charter—served more poor students, more minority students, and more students with special needs.

A couple of weeks ago we learned from Chalkbeat New York that charter schools frequently do not practice what is commonly called in New York City, “backfilling students.” Some charter school operators in NYC and elsewhere refuse to fill places vacated by children who drop out, because they claim that it is more difficult to bring newcomers fully into the school’s culture or to catch new students up academically.  “Backfilling seats that open up can pose steep challenges for schools.  Students who enter the school midyear or at one of a school’s higher grade levels can have trouble adjusting to the new school and be academically behind.  Midyear entries especially are more likely to have unstable home lives, leading to them leaving the school—meaning that one ‘backfilled’ seat might actually be filled by two or three students over the course of a year.”  According to Chalkbeat New York, for example,  Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charters do not accept new students after third grade.

Then on Saturday, April 4, the NY Times published an opinion piece by Andrea Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, about evidence in New York City that charter schools are selective. “In Harlem, there is a marked disparity between the special-needs populations in charter and traditional public schools, according to the city education department’s annual progress reports.  In East Harlem, data for the 2012-2013 school year shows that most of the public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double, and several have triple, the proportion of special-needs kids of nearby charter schools.  At most of these public schools, at least a quarter of students have Individualized Education Programs (I.E.P.s)…”

Gabor reports: “Students with I.E.P.s also tend to leave New York City charter schools at higher rates than their general-education classmates….  Among special-needs students enrolled in charter schools in kindergarten in 2008, 27 percent had transferred to a traditional public school by third grade; the corresponding rate for general-education students was 17 percent.” Sometimes the charter schools fail to offer appropriate services and students transfer back to their neighborhood schools that provide special education.

“As charter schools demand an ever larger share of public resources, they insist that they teach a full spectrum of public-school students,” writes Gabor. “But there is abundant evidence to the contrary.”

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