What would Biden do when it comes to charter schools?
What would Joe Biden do about federal funds for charter school expansions that were an important part of President Obama’s educational initiatives? So far, he has indicated that he would not support expanding the small share of charters that are for-profit. However, there will be intense pressure on him to eliminate all federal support as anti-charter organizations continue to issue negative reports.
One such report — “Broken Promises,” from the Network for Public Education (NPE) — was uncritically featured in recent Washington Post and Forbes articles. The report focused exclusively on the seemingly large number of charter closures, and is typical of the critiques of charters: As much as possible, discuss things other than the improved academic performance of Black and Latino students from poor urban backgrounds who attend charters.
For example, earlier this year Brookings researcher Andre Perry condemned the New Orleans post-Katrina transformation to a charter school system, focusing on its “erasure of Black teachers.” The Black share of the teaching staff did decline, from 70 percent to 50 percent; hardly an erasure. However, Perry did not mention the post-hurricane dramatic improvement in New Orleans’ achievement scores that the New York Times reporter David Leonhardt has highlighted. Since New Orleans went completely charter, there is no issue of selectively picking students — even though, in most states, selection is through random lotteries — or of favoring wealthier students, even though charters have just as large a share of poor, Black and Latino students as the traditional public schools (TPS).
When forced to discuss achievement results, critics often hide the true outcomes. Referencing the Stanford University Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO), Huffington Post reporter Joy Resmovits stated, “A stream of recent research has shown that, on average, charter schools don’t outperform traditional public schools, though they may be more effective in some areas than others.” She quoted researcher Matthew Di Carlo: “The vast majority of charter schools get no better and no worse test-based results than comparable regular public schools.” The article did note parenthetically that charters “do perform slightly better in urban areas.”
The article substantially understates the benefits cited by CREDO. “Our findings show urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS peers,” its national report stated. “These results translate to urban charter students receiving the equivalent of roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.”
Gains were even greater for the most at-risk groups. Poor, Black students gained 59 days of additional learning in math and 44 additional days in reading. Latino students with English Language Learning status gained an additional 72 days in math and 79 days in reading.
Not only does the NPE “Broken Promises” study ignore these substantial educational gains, the evidence presented on charter closures is misleading. Underperforming schools comprise the largest share of closures. A CREDO report studied both charter and traditional public school closures of underperforming schools and noted that the average student enrollment in closed underperforming charter schools was only 40 percent of average enrollment in those that remained open. As a result, by focusing on the number of schools closed, the NPE report substantially overstated its impact on students.
Moreover, closing underperforming schools can be beneficial. University of Pennsylvania researcher Matthew Steinberg studied the impact of the closing of 20 underperforming schools in Philadelphia. After observing student improvement when transferring to better schools, he concluded that “the big picture takeaway is that breaking up low-performing schools with disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged kids can be helpful.”
In addition, charters overwhelmingly serve poor, Black and Latino students so they may be more vulnerable to closures. Even though charters are only 6 percent of public schools nationally, they comprise 20 percent of closures for poor performance. This disparity reflects not only the vulnerable population served, but also the reluctance of government regulators to close traditional public schools. The CREDO report noted that 6 percent of poorly performing charters are closed, compared to only 3.2 percent of underperforming traditional public schools. If underperforming public schools were subject to the same closure rate, the closure gap would be more than halved.
Finally, the CREDO report indicates that the higher overall charter closure rate is primarily driven by a few large states. In Florida, California, Wisconsin and Ohio, charter closure rates are greater than 10 percent of underperforming schools — more than double their closure rates for traditional public schools. Indeed, all evidence indicates that the lack of significant government oversight in Florida has led to real abuses, particularly by for-profit charters there. By contrast, in many other states — Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas — closure rates for underperforming traditional schools are significantly higher than for charters. Thus, judging the seriousness of charter closures is not as straightforward as the NPE report claimed.
While there are certainly bad charter schools and exemplary traditional public schools, what should be incontestable are the impressive benefits that the typical charter offers urban students. Unlike many traditional public schools, charters are able to maintain discipline and respect for authority, and they stress individual initiative. This is why many Black and Latino communities are strong supporters of charter school expansion.
If Joe Biden wins the White House in November, he must reject the loud critics. Just as President Obama did, he should put the interests of poor, minority children first.
Robert Cherry is professor emeritus in economics at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. He is the co-author of “Moving Working Families Forward: Third Way Policies That Can Work.” He is a member of the 1776 Unites forum.
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