In Michigan, Gov. Snyder’s education policies have effectively put a For Sale sign on every public school student — launching an explosion in the growth of charter schools, and we are just now beginning to see some credible analysis on the charter boom impact. Much of it focuses on the Detroit area where public schools are hemorrhaging students to these for-profit charters — the kids are like so much chum in a corporate feeding frenzy.
The charter craze ignited 20 years ago in Minnesota and, until recently, very little hard data was sifted by professionals. Much of the “evidence” in support of charters was anecdotal and theoretical, often appealing to parental emotions and notions of “choice” magically bringing improvements to our educational system through an over-simplified understanding of the competitive model. We’ve seen public policy based on airy and unsubstantiated claims — a risky experiment that would not likely occur in other developed nations. This behavioral pattern is fully buttressed by the conservative enthusiasm for rugged individualism — “get government out of our lives” thinking (unless it’s our vaginas of course).
The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) conducted an analysis examining 6 years of charter performance in Michigan from the 2005-06 school-year to the 2010-11. Their Jan. 2013 report did not factor adjustments for socioeconomic conditions, but nonetheless, there is plenty of enlightening information in the report. While on the surface, charter schools overall tend to make larger learning gains in reading and mathematics, a mining of the subterranean data yields a picture that corrects this somewhat misleading conclusion.
The demographics tell the tale. In charter schools, 49 percent are former Detroit Public School students, 70 percent are from poverty, and 57% are black. (Childhood poverty is surging in Detroit at the same time their school system is being systematically dismantled under Emergency Management.) When adjustments are made for socioeconomics, the charters are not as great a deal as they may seem. Jeff Padden, of Public Policy Associates, in a guest article in Bridge Magazine, put it this way: “We should not always judge the outcomes of a poor district by the same absolute standards as we do a school in a wealthy district.” Padden went on to explain that when the data are filtered through a Value Added Matrix (VAM), adjusting for socioeconomic status, we find that charters are represented among the top performing, but more significantly in the lowest performing, with few in the middle ranking. The most disturbing discovery was how very poorly the lowest charters served students from poverty. Padden said that this conclusion was consistent with research his organization conducted on a national level — charters schools were at the top and and at the bottom, with little in between.
There are two types of privatized charter schools — Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), which are directly privatized holding companies, and Education Management Orgainizations (EMOs), who contract with the charter to provide staff, curriculum, and other services. The CREDO report found that the CMOs have significantly lower gains in reading and math than the less directly privatized EMOs. It is speculated that the EMOs have a greater stake in ensuring the success of the school so as to maintain their contractual affiliation and corporate reputation — here, a little competition goes a long way. But the correlation between direct privatization and poor performance should serve as a red flag for those endorsing the competitiveness model.
Charter schools have a poor track record of attracting special needs students. The CREDO report couches it this way:
“…charter schools create a degree of sorting through their offer of different academic programs and alternate school models…Parents of children with special needs may believe the TPS [traditional public school] sector is better equiped to educate their children and therefore be less likely to opt out for a charter. An alternate possibility is that charter and traditional public schools have different criteria for making referrals for assessment or categorizing students as needing special education.”
Special needs students in Detroit Public Schools are becoming an increasingly larger portion of the school population. The statewide average among traditional public schools is 12 percent, but DPS is struggling to serve 18 percent — that’s 9,000 students – all while under the cruel austerity measures of the Emergency Manager. Their class sizes have doubled, yet among the expanded charter schools, only 10 percent are classified as special needs kids. The bulk of those students with profound disabilities remain in traditional public schools. The result is the socialization of debt and the privatization of profit.
There is an additional X-factor that has yet to be quantified. Charter schools attract families with highly motivated parents who have the time and resources to commit to the charter experiment. Charters rely heavily on parental involvement and monetary support — everything from driving students to and from school, classroom participation, to serving lunchs and janitorial support. Many schools additionally “employ” the students themselves in certain daily functions, such as cleaning the lunchroom. These human capital investments both save the charter money and attract students that would normally thrive anywhere due to parental support — charter school or not.
In full disclosure, my children attended a charter school for one year in the early days of Michigan’s charter movement. Although it was an interesting trial run, the school clearly had some quirks and kinks as a result of its spontaneous generation. Two otherwise disparate groups had founded the school — ex-hippies and Mormons, creating an odd mix of free spirits and patriarchs. The result was more of a communal cult than a place of learning. Both of my children transferred back to a traditional public school where they were well-served and able to avail themselves of speech therapy and talented and gifted programs, neither of which were provided by the charter.
Amy Kerr Hardin This article also appears in Voters Legislative Transparency Project