Charter school opponents can’t hide from the data

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Effective arguments are becoming harder to come by for charter school opponents. At first their big claim was that charters “siphon” money from traditional public schools, but that’s a tough sell now that school districts receive more than two years of funding after a student chooses to leave for a charter school.

Next came the claim that charter schools “push out” lower-performing students. That one was derailed by data showing that retention rates in urban charters are no worse than in the surrounding district. The big difference is that traditional school students usually drop out when they leave; charter students return to the district and generally graduate with no problem thanks to the increased rigor they encountered in their charter school.

Now two new studies go a long way toward disproving opponents’ latest claims that charter schools dissuade English language learners (ELLs) and special education (SPED) students from enrolling.

An MIT study finds that both SPED students and ELLs at Boston charter schools experienced larger test score gains than their Boston Public Schools peers. In the charters, 141 percent (or 1.41 times) more SPED students and 142 percent (or 1.42 times) more ELLs scored “advanced” or “proficient” on MCAS math tests. One hundred and thirty-seven percent (1.37 times) more charter school SPED students scored advanced or proficient in English and the number was 136 percent (1.36 times) more for charter ELLs.

The study finds that SPED students in Boston charter schools are more likely to become eligible for a state merit scholarship and take Advanced Placement tests, and they also score higher on SATs.

The study’s methodology undermines another favorite claim of charter opponents: that charter schools perform better because they skim more advantaged students. To nullify this issue, author Elizabeth Setren, an MIT researcher, compared charter students to their peers who applied for charters but were not admitted in the lottery used to determine admission.

Simultaneously, a new Pioneer Institute study finds that charter schools in Lawrence, Lowell, East Boston and Chelsea are recruiting ELLs effectively and improving academic outcomes for those students.

The percentage of ELLs in the Lawrence and Lowell charter schools is higher than in the surrounding districts.  Four years ago, just 2.5 percent of Boston charter school students were ELLs. Today, the number is 12.5 percent and it is continuing to rise.

Author and Pioneer Institute Senior Fellow Cara Stillings Candal points to a number of best practices that are responsible for charter schools’ success with ELLs. They include individualized instruction within the context of the mainstream classroom, the use of benchmark assessments to inform individualized instruction, and regular outreach to parents to help them become more involved in their children’s education.

These new studies continue a drumbeat of research demonstrating the effectiveness of Massachusetts charter schools. A 2009 study conducted by Harvard and MIT researchers found that charters dramatically outperform their district counterparts and that the academic impact of a year in a Boston charter school was similar to that of a year in one of the city’s elite exam schools. Earlier this year, a Stanford University study found that Boston charter schools are doing more to eliminate the achievement gap between richer and poorer students than any other group of public schools in the country.

All this couldn’t come at a worse time for the charter opponents. Gov. Baker has filed legislation to raise the cap on the number of charter schools that can be opened in Massachusetts, supporters just announced that they have collected 73,000 signatures to get a question that would allow more charter schools on the 2016 statewide ballot, and attorneys from three leading Boston law firms have filed a suit claiming that the charter cap denies students equal access to educational opportunity.

All this is good news for Massachusetts families. But if we lived anywhere else but Massachusetts, this is a debate that would have been over years ago, given the results that Massachusetts charter schools have produced.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. 

This article was edited to note the correct percentages of SPED and ELL student performances on MCAS math and English tests.

Also by Jim Stergios:

Let’s do Next-Gen MCAS right

Rotten to the core: Big money pushes PARCC and Common Core