LITTLE ROCK Charter-school success is driven by the demographic characteristics of the students in the schools rather than educational strategies, concludes a new study distributed to state legislators and policymakers.
“Analyzing the Success of Arkansas’s Charter Schools - Unfulfilled Promises” was produced by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the Arkansas Education Association, and released at a time when state lawmakers are considering a bill to modify the limits on the state’s charter schools.
Senate Bill 346 would lift the existing 24-school cap on the number of independently run, taxpayer-financed charter schools in the state. The bill was passed by the Senate on Tuesday and sent to the House.
The study by the three organizations found that the differences in student achievement between charter schools and the public school districts in which the charter campuses are located are not statistically significant when the race and family-income levels of the students are taken into account.
Otherwise, the average achievement levels, based on the 2008-09 results on the state Benchmark and End-of-Course exams, were significantly higher in the charter schools.
The Arkansas Public Policy Panel is a statewide group “dedicated to achieving social and economic justice” and links various groups into coalitions and networks, according to its website. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families promotes policies to protect and improve the lives of children in matters such as health and education. The Arkansas Education Association is a statewide teachers union.
More than 70 percent of charter students achieved at proficient and advanced levels on the state exams compared with 62.4 percent of the students in traditional schools, according to the study.
But if the charter schools had the same demographic characteristics as public schools, just 65.8 percent of the charter students would have scored at their appropriate grade level or better, according to calculations in the study. The study said the difference between the 65.8 percent and 62.4 percent was “statistically insignificant.”
Charter schools in the 2008-09 school year - the year used in the study - had an overall 38.1 percent black enrollment compared with 40 percent for traditional school districts. Just 36.8 percent of the charter students were from low-income families compared with 63.9 percent of traditional school students.
Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, called the demographic differences between the two types of schools “discouraging” and a concern.
“Charter schools are taking resources out of the traditional public schools to serve a less diverse, higher-income population and leaving higher-minority, lower-income students - who need the most help - with fewer resources,” Kopsky said, “and then [the charter schools are] not delivering significantly better results for it.”
In an interview, Gary Ritter, director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, criticized the methodology and many of the conclusions of the study.
“I am disappointed that this analysis, with its many clear problems, might have an influence on the policy process,” Ritter said. “While it is a very good idea to assess whether charter schools are performing well, it is not a good idea to use such faulty comparisons and poor data.”
Ritter objected to the use of just one year’s worth of data, failure to assess achievement growth over time and even to the public schools to which the charter schools were compared.
He said that achievement at the Arkansas Virtual Academy, which serves students statewide, was compared with the Little Rock School District in the study, for example. He also said that the study assumed - wrongly, he said - that no low-income students were served by the Virtual Academy or the Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville.
Kopsky said in an interview that the advocacy organizations are not “anti-charter schools” but want high quality schools of all types - traditional public, charter and even private schools. He called the KIPP: Delta Public Charter Schools system based in Helena-West Helena and the e-Stem Public Elementary, Middle and High charter schools in Little Rock “bright spots” in the charter school data because of their “very disciplined” approach to addressing racial achievement gaps.
“But, to me, the case for expanding the number of charter schools in the state just isn’t made by this data,” Kopsky also said.
The study says that expanding charter schools and loosening state restrictions on them will likely result in “more segregation with even fewer low-income and children of color in charters,” and fewer resources for the students who remain in “under-resourced” traditional public schools.
“Evidence suggests that Arkansas needs more criteria and accountability for charter schools,” the study says.
That additional criteria and accountability for the charter schools should “focus on exceeding the performance of their public school peers; providing enhanced opportunities to learn - especially for low-income and children of color; more accountability to close charter schools that under perform or fail to meet their mission, and increased transparency so other schools can learn from what is working.”
Ritter questioned the study’s assertion that traditional schools have fewer resources than charter schools.
“I am not exactly sure what under-resourced means here,” he said. “In 2009-10, traditional public schools in Arkansas spent $11,717 per student, while charters spent $9,417.”
He also questioned how much more accountable charter schools can be held in light of the state Board of Education’s decision Monday to immediately close the Little Rock Urban Collegiate Public Charter School For Boys. A total of 262 students have been left to find other schools for the remainder of this school year.
“How much stricter should our state’s charter policies be?” Ritter asked.
“In the end, the authors may well have landed on the right answer by accident despite shoddy analysis,” Ritter said. “Charters likely perform just a little bit better than their traditional public-school peers. Some do great work and some do a lousy job. This is also the case with traditional public schools - the difference is that under performing public schools get to stay open.”