School & District Management Opinion

Jack Hassard: Charter School Data Fuels Controversy in Georgia

By Anthony Cody — March 16, 2012 12 min read
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Guest post by Jack Hassard.

The Charter school movement has been in the news recently in Georgia. The Georgia Legislature is trying to get around the present Charter School law which says that applications for establishing a charter school must be approved by the local school district.

According to theGeorgia Department of Education, there are 133 charter schools operating in Georgia. Charter schools are public schools of choice that operate under the terms of a charter, or contract, with an authorizer, such as the state and local boards of education, or the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. Charter schools receive flexibility from certain state and local rules in exchange for a higher degree of accountability for raising student achievement. Charter schools are held accountable by their authorizer.

Up until last year if a charter school application was rejected by the local district, it could then seek approval from the Georgia Charter School Commission, and if approved, could get their funds from the local district that rejected them in the first place.

Gwinnett County Schools v. Cox
However, on May 16, 2011, the Supreme Court of Georgia’s decision in Gwinnett County School District v. Cox found that the state constitution does not authorize any governmental entity to create or operate schools that are not under the control of a local board of education. According to the majority decision, no other government entity can compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education in establishing and maintaining general K-1 2 schools. And it further states that local boards of education have the exclusive authority to fulfill one of the primary obligations of the State of Georgia, namely “the provision of an adequate public education for all citizens” (Art. VIII, Sec. I, Par. I.).

Thecourt statedthat “commission charter schools” (those established by Georgia Charter School Commission) are created to deliver K-12 public education to any student within Georgia’s general K-12 public education system. Commission charter schools thus necessarily operate in competition with or duplicate the efforts of locally controlled general K-12 schools by enrolling the same types of K-12 students who attend locally controlled schools and by teaching them the same subjects that are taught at locally controlled schools.

Georgia Charter School Commission v. Local Boards of Education

Right now the Georgia Charter School Commission is unable to establish charter schools on its own. Charter schools must be approved by local boards of education, re Gwinnett Country Schools v. Cox.

The Republicans in the Georgia legislature were not pleased by the Supreme Court of Georgia’s decision to neuter the state commission on charters, and submitted legislation this year to circumvent the court’s decision by changing the State’s constitution. This will require that the amendment be presented for approval by the citizens of Georgia.

In January 2012, House Bill 797, to provide for state chartered special schools, was introduced into the Georgia House. The Bill, if approved by both houses would seek to amend Title 20 of the Official Code of Georgia (Education Code), meaning that the citizens of Georgia would have to vote on the amendment. The key element of this Bill is to enable the State of Georgia, through the Georgia Charter School Commission, to authorize “state charter schools.” The bill claims that state charter schools can serve as a complement to the educational opportunities provided by local school boards. And indeed, the amendment, if passed by citizen vote, would establish a state level commission to create its own set of schools, and demand that the local school board essentially use local funds to support a school they may or may not sanction. As you will find out ahead in this post, charter schools may not be a viable alternative in terms of raising student achievement scores.

This puts enormous power in the Commission, whose members will be appointed by the Governor, and the leaders of the state legislature. It also brings into question how this unelected Commission can usurp the power vested in local school boards to provide for the education of students in its jurisdiction.

On March 7, 2012, Georgia House Bill 797passed 115-49. The Bill has not passed the Senate as all Democrats are refusing to support the issue. However the bill is still alive, but needs 2/3′s of the Senate to get on a ballot. HR 1162 is Tabled in the Senate.

While reading the court decisions and legislative reports on charter schools, I found no information or data provided about the quality or effectiveness of charter schools. Effectiveness would show up if they had discussed either how well charters did on achievement tests (Georgia CRCT), or if there was evidence of the narrowing of the achievement gap between black and white students. In all the papers that I read, it was assumed that charter schools would be at least as good as the local schools or better.
So that raises a basic question. How effective are Charter Schools compared to regular Public Schools?

Charter Schools

Charter schools have been part of the educational landscape in America for many years. The idea was first proposed in 1988 by Ray Riddle, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, and embraced by Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers. Charter school laws were first passed in Minnesota in 1991, California in 1992 and now 41 states have such laws.

Charter schools, although they can waive some regulations, are held accountable to the standards set by the district and/or the state. You can read more about charter schools here, andhere, and more details on Georgia charter schoolshere.

Some questions. Are charter schools better at educating students and helping them to be college ready? Do they effectively work with students in high-poverty schools? Is there data to support the notion that charter schools are much better at helping students learn than regular public schools? Do charters provide at least a comparable education as their local public schools do?

Let’s take a look.

Charter & Public School Academic Performance & Poverty

There are nearly 5,000 charter schools in the U.S., enrolling about 12.5 million students. Charters might be thought of as independent public schools that are accountable to the same standards as “regular” public schools. Yet, charter schools are seen by some as one solution to improve student academic performance by creating schools that are innovative, technology oriented, and staffed with highly skilled teachers.

To examine and compare the performance of students in charter and public high schools, we are going to take a look at the work done at the University of Texas under the direction of Professor Michael Marder,Department of Physics, and later in the post, research done by CREDO at Stanford.

First we’ll look at the work done at the University of Texas. Through the use of visualization of data, Dr. Marder has provided a powerful collection of graphical charts, movies, and pdf documents.

One of Dr. Marder’s significant findings in his research on educational outcomes is that “nothing makes sense in education except in the Light of Poverty.” We’ll use this idea as we study the performance of charter and public schools.

Poverty & Academic Performance
Take a look at this graph (Figure 2). There are two variables plotted in the graph, (1) poverty concentration in Texas high schools and (2) percentage of students in each school meeting the SAT Criterion. If we assume that poverty concentration is plotted on the x-axis, what can we say about the association of poverty and academic achievement as measured by the SAT?

As Dr. Marder points out in his research, the association between poverty concentration with academic performance is very strong. Look at the graph in Figure 3 with the proper labels in place. The concentration of poverty in school is found by determining the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches/meals. Academic performance or college-readiness was determined by Dr. Marder by using the percentage of students who take the SAT or the ACT and score 1110 or 24 on the SAT and ACT, respectively.

Schools with low concentrations of poverty (wealthy schools) produce higher percentages of students that are college ready, whereas schools with high levels of poverty (poor schools), produce very few students who are college ready. The association is clear. Here is what Dr. Marder adds to this discussion.

The same data are available for 2006 and 2007, and the pictures look very much the same. If teacher quality really were the most important factor impacting student achievement, one would have to conclude that every Texas high school with more than 85% poverty concentration has retained a staff of largely inferior teachers for as long as data have been collected, while virtually every single Texas high school with less than 15% poverty concentration has managed to acquire superior teachers

The teacher doesn’t seem to be the determining factor is achieving success for students in Texas schools. Dr. Marder has done analyses of similar data for Florida, California, and New Jersey high schools, and the pictures are the quite similar to the Texas graph.

Where are the Charter Schools in All of This Data?

Texas. Now, we turn our attention to charter schools, and highlight the charter schools amongst the data so that we ascertain how Charters fare in all of this. The results are disappointing is you are an advocate of the charter school solution to America’s schools. As you look at the graph below the Charter schools are highlighted in red, all of the grey’s are public schools. According to Dr. Marder, there are 140 charter high schools in Texas with 11th grade data. As you can see in Figure 4, most of the charter schools form a flat line at the bottom of the graph indicating that except for 7 charters off the flat line, the rest of the charters are doing worse than than regular public schools.

According to Dr. Marder, when similar analyses are done in other states, charter schools follow the Texas profile, although they appear to be doing a bit better than the Texas charters. But in none of the states do the charters do better than public schools.
Florida. Figure 5 shows the percentage of students in tenth grade in Florida reaching level 5 (Commended) in mathematics as a function of poverty. Again, we see the general trend associating achievement and concentrations of poverty. The red discs are charter schools, and as seen, they do no better, and in general do worse than public schools.

California, New York, and New Jersey. Followthis link to see graphs of not only Texas and Florida, but also California, New York and New Jersey and in each case you will note that charter schools perform poorly compared to public schools.

Implication for Georgia Charters

Based on research that was cited above, the Georgia legislature in its intent to make it possible for the State to create charters without approval nor support from the local school districts is not warranted simply on the basis that charter schools do as good a job as public schools in either helping students to be college ready, or in data cited here in leaning mathematics. The claim that charters provide a robust alternative to public schools is simply not supported on the basis of the research reported by Dr. Marder and his colleagues at the University of Texas.

Charter School Performance in Reading & Mathematics

In a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, hundreds of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia were studied to find out what was the impact of these charter schools on student learning. The approach CREDO followed to carry out this study is described here:

CREDO has partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to consolidate longitudinal student?level achievement data for the purposes of creating a national pooled analysis of the impact of charter schooling on student learning gains. For each charter school student, a virtual twin is created based on students who match the charter student's demographics, English language proficiency and participation in special education or subsidized lunch programs. Virtual twins were developed for 84 percent of all the students in charter schools. The resulting matched longitudinal comparison is used to test whether students who attend charter schools fare better than if they had instead attended traditional public schools in their community. The outcome of interest is academic learning gains in reading and math, measured in standard deviation units.

The results raise serious question about the efficacy of charters, and reaffirm the central importance of a strong public school system. The results also are in agreement with the findings of Michael Marder’s study: Failure of U.S. Secondary Schools in Mathematics: Poverty is more important than Teacher quality.

Here are some of their findings from the CREDO study:

  • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

Table 6. Comparison of Charter Schools to Public School Source: CREDO Stanford, 2009

The majority of students attending charter schools would have fared much better if they are gone to a public school. And in the case of Georgia (one of the 15 states in the study), the results were mixed, or no differences were found between the charter schools in Georgia and the public schools.

The researchers made this assertion as a policy implication of their research:

In some ways, however, charter schools are just beginning to come into their own. Charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers across the country, with every expectation that they will continue to figure prominently in national educational strategy in the months and years to come. And yet, this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face. (Emphasis mine).

The research reported in this post casts a nebulous eye on the efficacy of charter schools in fulfilling the promise that charters, because they can operate more flexibly than their public school counterparts, will create environments where students will not only do as well as public school students, but out perform them on achievement tests. The massive amount of data that has been analyzed by Dr. Marder’s team at the University of Texas, and the results of charter school performance in 16 states does not paint a very pretty picture of charter schools.

Our political leaders have turned what started out as a good idea--the creation of charter schools--into a political battle ground. Again, legislators take the position that it was an “activist court” that changed the law, and in Georgia the furious battle to try and change the State Constitution is a revengeful act a partisan group.

Lurking in the fringes of this battle ground are corporations that see public education as a new market in which to make bets and money.

Research is on the side of those who see public education as crucial to the welfare of each state and the Nation. It would be in the best interests of teachers and students if legislators would read the research, and listen to those who can answer questions with on the ground experience, and scholarly research.

What do you think? Should the Georgia Legislature Pass Legislation that would essentially allow the state to establish as separate network of “public” schools which are name “charters.” After reading this article do you think that charters provide a viable alternative to public schools? Should the state demand that local schools pay for state charters?

Jack Hassard is Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. He is author of The Whole Cosmos Catalog of Science, Science Experiences, Adventures in Geology, The Art of Teaching Science (2009), Second Edition, Routledge, and most recently, Science As Inquiry (2011), 2nd Edition, Good Year Books. Specialities include science teaching & learning, global thinking & education, geology, web publishing, blogging, writing, and antiquing. This post originally appeared at his blog,The Art of Teaching Science.

All graphs used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.