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Latest Criticism of Charter Schools Ignores (Again) Key Data

Comparisons dismiss the greater obstacles poor kids must overcome to do well in school

A former state board of education president attacked public charter schools in a recent commentary in Bridge Magazine but omitted a key point in evaluating student performance.

John Austin wrote, “Under the banner of school choice the [Betsy] DeVos-[Lisa] Lyons agenda has successfully worked to build up a parallel for-profit, non-unionized, education universe, with no concern over the fact that most of the new schools delivered worse, not better education.”

In an email, Austin explained that “new schools” referred to all charter schools. To support his claim of their poor performance, he cited a 2017 New York Times article. According to the New York Times, “A 2016 analysis by The Education Trust-Midwest, a nonpartisan education policy and research organization, found that 70 percent of Michigan charters were in the bottom half of the state’s rankings.”

The Education Trust-Midwest report did not, however, factor in the economic and social backgrounds of charter school students.

That’s key because scholars and experts generally agree that the socioeconomic status of students is a key determinant in how well they perform on standardized tests. This view is widely shared by scholars from across the ideological spectrum.

Selcuk R. Sirin, an associate professor at New York University and an expert on student achievement, told Michigan Capitol Confidential in 2014 that a family’s socioeconomic status was “one of the strongest correlates of academic performance.” Sirin, who has published articles on the impact of socioeconomic status on students, said, “The effect is even stronger with no comparison to any other known variable of interest.”

This suggests that any assessment of charter schools’ performance that does not consider the socioeconomic status of their students is subject to question.

There are about 150,000 charter school students in Michigan. According to the state, 75 percent of charter school students are eligible for the free or reduced-price federal lunch program while 48 percent of students in conventional public schools are eligible, as of 2017-18. The state uses such eligibility when it allocates extra money (“at-risk” funding) to conventional public schools that enroll more low-income students.

The largest concentrations of charter school students are in the economically depressed cities of Flint and Detroit. There were 50,460 charter school students in Detroit and 5,780 in Flint in 2016-17. Those cities now have more students in charter schools than in conventional public schools.

“The Ed-Trust study cited does not provide a meaningful assessment of charter school performance,” said Michael Van Beek, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s director of research. “Education researchers have known for decades that students’ socioeconomic situations have a huge impact on standardized test scores, and the Ed-Trust study naively does not account for that in any way whatsoever.”

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, or CREDO, reported in a 2015 study that charter school students in Detroit received the equivalent of a few weeks to as much as several months of additional learning in reading and math compared to their peers at the city’s conventional public schools. CREDO also stated that Detroit’s successful charter schools could serve as a model for other communities.

In 2013, CREDO released a study on all Michigan charter schools and found that their students typically did better than their counterparts in conventional public schools. The charter school advantage, CREDO reported, was equivalent to about two extra months of gains in reading and math each year.

CREDO researchers factored socioeconomic status into their analyses.

“The tragedy is that Michigan’s charter school movement, which should be about creating new, quality charters that improve student learning and outcomes, or replace failing schools — has been hijacked by those who don’t care if charters don’t [produce] educated kids,” Austin said in an email. “I support quality charters as part of a purposeful strategy to improve all students learning — that is not what the DeVos’ and ‘choice at all costs’ effort is about — it’s a political effort to advantage anti-government Republicans at the expense of Democrats in elections.”

Austin served on the Michigan State Board of Education from 2001-2016.