The nation’s charter schools appear to enroll low-income students and students with disabilities in proportions similar to those in their surrounding districts, according to a report released last week. But it’s still not clear, the report adds, whether they provide a better education.
Numbering more than 3,300 in 40 states and the District of Columbia, charter schools are public schools that are allowed to operate free of most bureaucratic constraints in return for improved student achievement.
The report, produced by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, located at the University of Washington in Seattle, comes at a critical juncture for the nearly 15-year-old movement.
With 448 charter schools opened in the 2004-05 school year, the movement grew faster last year than it has in any of the previous four years. But in at least 20 states, the largely start-up schools are bumping up against caps put in place to control their growth.
Scholars and charter school advocates are divided, according to the report, over whether future growth of the schools should come at the grassroots level or states should aim for critical masses of charters that could exert competitive pressure on regular school systems.
“It really does seem to me that charter schools have hit an important point in their development, and it’s time for a more sophisticated approach to research and policy,” said Robin J. Lake, the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. She co-edited the report with the center’s director, Paul T. Hill. The findings were set to be released on Nov. 21 at a forum held by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Aiming for Neutrality
Funded by a consortium of foundations convened by the Washington, D.C.-based Philanthropy Roundtable, the report is the first of what will be a series of annual reports and other studies tracking the charter movement. The series aims to sound a neutral voice in a debate that has grown more polarized in recent years—a task the first report largely accomplished, some experts said.
“I think what this report will do is reduce some of the simplistic views people have come to develop about charter schools,” said Jane Hannaway, the director of the Urban Institute Education Policy Center.
For example, on the issue of schools’ demographic makeup, the report notes that charters enroll higher percentages of low-income students and students from minority groups than do the regular public schools in the states where they operate.
Researchers compared the proportions of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches in charter and district-run schools.
*Numbers represent percentage of students
SOURCE: National Charter School Research Project, 2005
Nationally, for instance, 58 percent of charter students are members of racial or ethnic minorities, compared with 41 percent for regular public schools in the same states. But, the report adds, that pattern reflects the fact that the largest proportion of charter schools—30.5 percent overall—are in large cities.
When compared with regular public schools in the same districts—a better comparison, the editors say—charters enroll nearly the same proportions of students in both categories. Getting the numbers right is important because critics often contend that charter schools “cream” the easiest-to-teach students from the regular public school system.
However, while the report goes beyond some previous studies to disentangle demographic questions, the authors need to go a step further, argued Gary J. Miron, an education professor from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who has also studied charter schools.
“In a lot of states, you have a number of schools that are almost exclusively minority or exclusively white,” said Mr. Miron, who reviewed the study. “Many of the states I’ve worked in have charter schools contributing to resegregation.”
Mr. Miron’s criticism highlights a recurring theme of the 83-page report: On most debates surrounding the charter movement, more and better research is still needed. For instance, many states lack data on the numbers of English-language learners in charter schools, which could further flesh out the demographic picture.
Many states also lack the sophisticated student-tracking systems that might let experts determine whether students learn more in charter schools than they would otherwise, another big question in the policy debates that surround charter schools.
It’s still impossible to tell whether student achievement improves in charter schools, the report concludes, despite a spate of recent studies that have portrayed the academic progress of charter school students as either better or worse than that of their counterparts in regular public schools.
“For the beginning of a new area of scientific inquiry, the research is pretty good,” said Mr. Hill. “For making high-stakes policy decisions, it’s not good at all.”
Credible research into the subject is further complicated, he said, by the variation among states in the rules governing charter school operations, the numbers of charter schools allowed, and the kinds of entities that oversee them.
“ ‘Charter school’ is a label that we’ve assigned to 41 quite different phenomenon,” Mr. Hill said.