Public Schools Outperform Public Charters

This blog first appeared on The Herald editorial page, January 11, 2014

On October 29, 2013, a guest editorial in The Herald ended a report on public charter schools by concluding that “the innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that charter schools offer is a worthy state investment.” The charter school experiment has been on-going in this state for fifteen years, and longer in other states.  Multiple studies of test results over the years show that charter schools are not the investment in innovation they are touted to be.  The SC Legislature, as funders of public education and supposed defenders of outcome-based results, should certainly consider the charter school record.  As an elementary principal for ten years in Rock Hill and now a member of the Rock Hill Board of Trustees I have considerable experience, interest in, and knowledge of the issues swirling around public education.

Public charters were conceived to allow innovation and raise student performance.  The 1996 SC Legislature echoed this hope when they established the SC Public Charter School District to ”improve student learning, encourage the use of a variety of productive teaching methods, and to assist South Carolina in reaching academic excellence.”   More than 15 years later the question is whether these hopeful aspirations have been fulfilled either in the U.S. or here in South Carolina.

First, consider the South Carolina evidence.  In South Carolina all public schools, including public charter schools, annually give the PASS (Palmetto Assessment of State Standards) test, with results published for each school and district.  When all 75 public charter schools are compared with all conventional public schools we find interesting results.  For 2013 in grades three through 8 the average math public school PASS performance (percent of students passing) exceeded public charter performance at every grade level, even without adjusting for wealth differences.  In English Language Arts ( reading) elementay schools outperformed charter schools in grades 3 through 5 with near even or non- significant differences in grades six through eight.  Statewide the need for meal supplements (free or reduced lunch) are higher in public schools (59%) versus in public charters (47%).  Public schools with higher percentage of poor children did better than charter schools.  Charter schools in South Carolina are not living up to their promise of delivering a superior, innovative education.  The public schools are producing better results.

Other states developed charter schools earlier and have funded them at even high levels than South Carolina.  It is worthwhile to examine the record of achievement and innovation in those studies.  Know that all these studies were constructed so that the effect of wealth and social class could be discounted (controlled) as a reason for differences and the success in teaching students could be determined for each school.

In 2009 the CREDO study sponsored by Stanford University examined 2500 charter schools and matched public schools.  Thirty seven percent of the charters performed WORSE than matched public schools, 46% were no different, and only 17% performed better than regular public schools.  So the goal of a superior charter education was achieved in about one out of six cases, with over one out of three doing significantly worse – not a reliable payoff for taxpayers and parents.

Milwaukee has the oldest system funding public, public charter, and voucher programs.  Yet a 2012 Report Card study concluded “The data does not support the claim that Milwaukee Charter schools outperform traditional public schools.  The mean Report Card scores indicate that Milwaukee Public Schools are outperforming their Charter School counterparts – particularly in the schools of highest poverty.”  Advocates of charter schools had expected that charter schools would be most helpful to poverty students.  Multiple studies show that this is not generally the case.

Up to now, only one set of tests is periodically given in each state to a representative sample of students in fourth and eighth grade.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been called the nation’s report card for the balanced and random sample it takes of public, charter, private, and parochial schools.   A 2013 analysis (C.A. & S. T. Lubienski  The Public School Advantage.) used NAEP data to compare over 30,000 students in public versus charter, private or parochial, and public schools.   After social class and wealth were taken into account no charter or private school scored higher than any public school.  Particularly at grade 4, public schools scored significantly higher than did private and charter schools on this analysis of NAEP.

Funding charter schools may be intended to support greater innovation.  However, in the NAEP analysis above each school was asked about many characteristics of their school, locale, size, parent participation.  None of these characteristics was related to academic success of students EXCEPT professional development, certification, and level of training in research-based teaching techniques.  In general public schools had more staff development, retained more experienced teacher and worked more systematically on proven effective methods of teaching.  Public schools were more likely to teach math using technology and to use less rote figuring and more reason and problem solving than non public or charter schools.  Public schools spent more developing their teachers’ skills than the private and charter schools.

This is consistent with my personal experience.  Three years ago I visited our local charter school on an open house day.  As I went from class to class I recognized three teachers whom I knew to be former local public school teachers.  I asked them why they had made the change from public to charter.  Two of them said that they were being asked by the public schools to “sit through in-services and teach in ways they did not wish to.”  Indeed, I observed in their classes signs of tools that had been mostly abandoned in public schools such as basal readers.  I, of course, thought of these teachers when I read the above findings.

I question why we peel away funding from public schools to spend on an endeavor not as effective in teaching students.  Public schools are NOT failing.  Indeed, we are achieving success in the midst of being attached from groups on several sides.  Some seem to see public school as just another market from which to make profits, some see them as a political battlefield for opposing views of government   Some attack our teachers and schools because we fail to score as high as other countries without considering that our percent of children living in poverty is the highest of any country in the “developed” “world.  Our public schools are doing phenomenal work considering the lack of support we get and the punching we regularly receive.  Think what we could do with unanimity of purpose and by giving more than lip service to recognition of the vital role of public schools.

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