Why we can't know if charters are truly successful
When, in the early 1990s, the California Legislature enacted the bill to create charter schools and fund them with state education dollars, those advocating the bill's adoption insisted that charters would benefit all students. Legally, charters are expected to reflect the demographic makeup of the region they serve. But that's not the situation at Oakland's badly misnamed American Indian charter schools.
Asian Americans are 13.4% of the total enrollment in the Oakland Unified district. African Americans make up 34.8%. But not at American Indian, where high-scoring Asian Americans are 54.7% of the enrollment and African Americans a meager 14.4%. Native Americans are a minuscule 2%.
That helps explain American Indian's incredible -- others might say questionable -- exam scores, which the pro-charter crowd heartily applauds. American Indian's student body does not mirror the local population.
Furthermore, the three American Indian charter schools developed by Ben Chavis have an exceedingly low number of English-language learners. While statewide 24% of all students are English learners, and 29.9% of all Oakland students are, in the three American Indian schools, that figure ranges from 0.54% to 8.9%.
But it is the lack of special-education students there that raises serious questions about how well charters meet their obligation as provided by the state's education code. Statewide, special-ed students are 10% of California's public school enrollment. That's precisely the percentage of special-ed kids in the Oakland school district. Statewide, 6% to 7% of charter students are special-ed. At two of American Indian's schools, there are zero special-ed students, and at the third, they make up only 1.6% of the enrollment.
Two factors explain that low special-ed enrollment. Many special-ed students have difficulty with traditional academic subjects. Their test scores would lower American Indian's averages on those standardized exams whose results the schools so loudly trumpet. Traditional public schools must provide the necessary facilities and academic environment for those children. Their test scores are included in the Academic Performance Index that is so widely cited by those comparing schools.
But charters have few special-ed pupils, and those they have tend to be more academically oriented and have mild to moderate disabilities, such as speech and language problems, that only slightly affect the overall averages. Traditional public schools, on the other hand, enroll special-ed students who have intensive disabilities.
Charters claim that their low special-ed enrollment is in the interest of the students. They should go to a school designed to offer them an appropriate curriculum, with the necessary facilities already in place. This means that charters don't have to spend the large amount of money that would be required to assist these students. It keeps the cost of charter operations down and skews test scores upward. It also explains why only 10 charters in Los Angeles have special-ed programs.
What happens when a charter special-ed kid needs more help and the school has no appropriate program? In Los Angeles, the student can request non-public school funding. The cost of that falls on the Los Angeles Unified School District, not the charter. In the last three years, the LAUSD paid $4 million to educate, in non-district schools, 100 former charter students; the charters paid nothing. Many of these children would have been appropriately served in the multitude of programs provided within the LAUSD's traditional schools.
Traditional public schools take all students and must accept the demographics of the neighborhood. We will never know how successful charters are as long as they fail to take on the total responsibility of educating a representative group of all the children in our communities.
Ralph E. Shaffer is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.
The numbers prove that charters help disadvantaged studentsCounterpoint: Lisa Snell
Ralph, the way in which you analyze student subgroups at the school level by comparing them with district averages for subgroups is misleading. You assume that all district-run schools in Oakland actually match the district's average demographics. This is not the case. There are many examples of district-run schools that are not racially integrated and have large populations of certain subgroups of students. Many schools have majority Latino or African American populations, or majority Asian or white populations. For example, at Hillcrest Elementary School, white students make up more than 65% of the enrollment; West Oakland Middle School is about 87% African American. The American Indian charter schools are actually more diverse than many of the district-run traditional schools.
Similarly, there are many examples of Oakland charter schools that serve higher percentages of English-language learners and economically disadvantaged students: Education for Change's enrollment is 67% English-learners, Monarch's is 68%, Lighthouse Community's is 75%, and the Dolores Huerta Learning Academy's is a whopping 99%. Ernestine Reems charter and the American Indian charter schools have almost 100% low-income students.
Special-ed is also difficult to evaluate at the school level. While some charters have below-the-district averages for special-ed students, so do many district-run schools. Other charter schools have higher percentages of special-ed students, such as Civicorps Elementary and North Oakland, both with 11%.
There is little evidence that charter schools are succeeding because they are educating higher-performing students. A March 2009 Rand Corp. study, "Charter Schools in Eight States: Effects on Achievement, Attainment, Integration, and Competition," examined charters in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego and the states of Florida, Ohio and Texas. It found that charter schools do not "skim" the top students away from traditional public schools. In fact, in many locations, students transferring to charter schools have below-average test scores. In addition, the Rand study found that charter transfers had surprisingly little effect on racial distributions of students. Typically, students transferring to charter schools moved to schools with racial distributions similar to those of the traditional public schools from which they came.
This is also true in Oakland. According to the Oakland Unified School District's annual scorecard, overall charter enrollment in Oakland includes a higher percentage of both English-learners and Latino students. About 51% of the students enrolled in Oakland charter schools are Latino, and about 30% are English-learners; at district-run schools, about 34% of the students are Latino, and about 29% are English-learners. On average, English-learners in Oakland charters outperformed those in Oakland's traditional public schools, 679 to 644, on the state's Academic Performance Index in 2008.
This obsession with the minutia of student demographics at individual schools ignores the big picture of how charter schools have helped disadvantaged students.
The bottom line is that many urban school environments are not as racially integrated as some people might prefer. However, while racial integration may be one goal of public education, it should not overshadow actual achievement gains for disadvantaged children. Charter schools in Oakland outperformed that city's traditional public schools in a number of disadvantaged subgroup populations, including Asian, socio-economically disadvantaged, African American, English-learners and Latinos.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation.