Yesterday, as I was writing my column for Thursday’s AJC print edition, the state Department of Education released its annual report about charter schools. The headline resulting from that report — that charter schools are performing worse than other public schools based on the federal measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP — is misleading.
For starters, here is the five-year trend line for scores, as illustrated in the report:
If you see any meaningful separation between “all” charter schools and “all” traditional public schools, you’re probably in the minority. What I see are two lines following much the same trend, taking turns being insignificantly ahead of the other. The five-year average for charter schools is 79.4 percent; for traditional public schools, it’s 79.6 percent. Pretty much a dead heat.
Ah, but aren’t charter schools supposed to produce better outcomes? If not, why bother with them?
Well, the majority of charter schools are located in metro Atlanta, as this map from the report illustrates:
Not counting charter school systems, such as Marietta’s or Decatur’s, 55 of the state’s 101 charter schools are in either Fulton (14), Cobb (6), DeKalb (11), Hall (7), Atlanta (13) or Gwinnett (4).
The most appropriate measurement of charter schools’ performance is how they are doing relative to the other schools in their own districts. Here’s the breakdown (Note: There are a few small discrepancies between these numbers and the ones I reported earlier today in a comment on another post; a 342-page report is not the easiest thing to read on an iPad, which is what I was using this morning):
* Fulton: 79 percent of charter schools made AYP; 73 percent of non-charter schools did;
* Cobb: 83 percent vs. 81 percent;
* DeKalb: 45 percent vs. 47 percent;
* Hall: 71 percent vs. 92 percent;
*Atlanta: 62 percent vs. 54 percent;
*Gwinnett: 100 percent vs. 82 percent.
So, charters clearly underperformed in Hall County and slightly underperformed in DeKalb — but take away a DeKalb charter that closed after last year (one of the beauties of charter schools is that they’re easier to close if they don’t work out) and the charters still in operation did slightly better than the non-charters there. Elsewhere, the news was better for charters: The other non-system charters in the state made AYP at a 74 percent clip, just above the state-wide average. System charters (where the entire school system consists of charter schools) also passed at a 74 percent rate.
In fact, take away the DeKalb charter schools, and charter schools state-wide barely beat out traditional public schools.
The data aren’t available (to me, anyway) to make a thorough examination of charters vs. traditional public schools in terms of racial minorities and students from low-income families. I would only note that charters are somewhat more likely than traditional public schools to serve minority students (62 percent non-white students vs. 56 percent state-wide) and slightly less likely to serve students receiving free or reduced-price lunches (50 percent vs. 57 percent).
Whether charter schools ought to be performing even better, and whether there’s enough being done to reform or close down underperforming ones, are subject to debate. But it’s superficial at best, and misleading at worst, to say charters are lagging behind other public schools.
– By Kyle Wingfield