By: Dr. Bruce Baker, Rutgers University

New Jersey is caught up in the latest school reform du jour – charter schools. Touted by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Commissioner Lucille Davy is pushing a proposal to “fast track” approval of new charter schools to compete for federal “Race to the Top” grants and to comply with proposed rules for improving the state’s lowest performing schools.

Charter fever is now so strong in some circles it is taken for granted that charters significantly “outperform” traditional public schools and, therefore, should be embraced as the answer to, and replacement for, so-called “failing” public schools.

Before heading-off on yet another school reform quest, what does the evidence show about NJ charter school performance? Charters were first authorized in 1995, and we now have 76 approved charters serving students from 46 districts, with many for 5 years or more.

First, an important reminder: the Legislature, in the charter enabling law, made clear that charter schools “have the potential to improve pupil learning” by promoting “comprehensive educational reform,” providing a “variety of educational approaches,” and “encouraging innovate learning methods.” Are NJ’s charters improving student performance? Do the results point to innovation? I take a brief look here at the first of these issues – performance on state assessments.

Secretary Duncan and others, including Bob Bowdon in his anti-traditional-public school movie “The Cartel,” point to one or two successful charter schools, like Newark’s North Star Academy and Princeton Charter School, to make the case for charter expansion.

But my analysis of the data paint a different story: some charters do well, but overall, charters are ranked among the lowest statewide, performing far below successful, suburban and middle class public schools, and at levels comparable to schools in poor districts. In other words, there is little difference between the overall performance of charters, which primarily serve students in poorer urban districts, and the traditional public schools in those districts, especially if State education officials allow chronically low achieving charters to remain in business.

I’ll start with the 2008 State assessment results. I begin with the “averages” by grade level and by district factor group, or DFG. DFG are State classifications of school districts based on community wealth, with “A” and “B” the poorest districts and “I” and “J” districts the most affluent. The chart below shows the % of students who scored proficient or advanced on all of the 2008 State assessments by DFG:

This data is striking: charter schools, most of which serve relatively poor student populations, perform across grade levels on par with schools in the poorest districts — DFG A and B – especially at both the beginning and end grades. Moreover, charter performance is no different for students scoring advanced and higher:

These averages also conceal the variations within the charter sector – variations that drag down the performance of North Star and the few charters touted as models. Below are the performance distributions for 3rd and 8th grade math on state assessments, for schools in DFG A and for charter schools, weighted by the total enrollments of schools. The figure shows that both at third grade and again at 8th grade the majority of students, be they in charters or poor traditional public schools are in schools with similar proficiency rates – around 70% for 3rd grade and around 40% for 8th grade. At 8th grade, charters appear slightly above 40% but the averages between the two groups – charters and poor traditional publics – are not statistically different.

Figure 4 paints an alternative picture. One view of the advantage of choosing a charter school over a traditional public school is that it would increase significantly the probability that a child is attending a higher performing school, or at the very least, decrease the probability that a child is attending a lower performing school. In figure 4, I estimate the “relative probabilities” that a child attends a grade level where state assessment performance is below 40% proficient or advanced. As a baseline group, I use the middle class DFG DE districts.

Figure 4 shows that relative to being in a DFG DE district, the likelihood that a child in a DFG A district is in a tested grade level where fewer than 40% of children score proficient or higher, is nearly 50 times greater. This analysis accounts for (controls for) differences across tested subjects and grade level. Students in DFG B schools are only 5 times more likely than those in DFG DE schools to be in a tested grade where fewer than 40% of children score proficient or higher. Students in charter schools are between 30 and 35% more likely than those in DFG DE schools to be in a tested grade level where fewer than 40% of children score proficient or higher. These aren’t particularly great odds. Better than the odds for traditional publics in DFG A only, but not across DFG A and B.

For an update on this analysis, click here.

Charter proponents often blame inadequate school funding for the low performance of so many charters. Under New Jersey’s charter law, charters receive less revenue per pupil than district schools. Figure 5 examines 2008-09 expenditures of districts by DFG and the charter sector and shows that, on average, charters schools have lower expenditures than the state’s poorest districts but comparable to expenditures in middle class districts. Clearly, students in high poverty charter schools have fewer resources than their peers in the neighborhood public school.

This resource differential, however, may diminish somewhat under the new school funding formula, which eliminates Abbott funding for poorer districts and increases overall funding level for charter schools. We also do not have data on the level and extent of private and philanthropic funding to support charter operations. But then again, charters should not be required to sustain themselves with philanthropy, which may, among other things, alter their public education and service mission.

While charter enthusiasts rightly point out the need for equitable funding, they often simultaneously argue that more money doesn’t buy better outcomes. At a minimum, charter proponents need to decide where they stand on this key point. Perhaps money does indeed matter?

The decidedly mixed performance of New Jersey’s charter sector mirrors the conclusions reached by Robert Bifulco and Katrina Bulkley, in their excellent summary of research literature on charter schools in the Handbook of Research on Education Finance and Policy:

“Research to date provides little evidence that the benefits envisioned in the original conceptions of charter schools – organizational and educational innovation, improved student achievement, and enhanced efficiency – have materialized.”

Dr. Bruce Baker is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational, Theory, Policy and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Dr. Baker blogs on school finance and other issues at http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/



Prepared: November 2, 2009

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