Charter schools: more diversity, more poverty, similar results

sassEvery year the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) releases its School and Staffing Survey, a treasure mine of interesting education tidbits for education data geeks.

According to the latest (collected from 14,000 schools during the 2011-12 school year), 64 percent of private school 12th graders will go on to a 4-year college or university but only 39.5 percent of traditional public school students and 37.2 percent of charter school students will do the same.

But don’t get too excited. Some caution is needed before making a conclusion about the impact of these schools because there are big differences regarding students and teachers at these schools. For example, private schools are much whiter and more affluent than public schools. That might explain some of the 25 percentage point advantage in college enrollment rates.

But if being whiter and more affluent helps private schools, it doesn’t seem to do much for traditional public schools when compared to charter schools.

District schools are whiter and slightly more affluent than charters, and their teachers are significantly better paid. Yet district 12th graders have just a 2.3 point advantage over charter 12th graders on attending college.

This is a small difference, especially when charters appear to be enrolling more disadvantaged students. The percentage of charter students enrolled in Title I programs (services for low-income kids in high-poverty schools) is 12 points higher than district schools and four points higher for free and reduced lunch programs. District schools serve a higher percentage of special needs students, but only by 1.8 points. Additionally, the percentage of minorities district schools serve is 17.4 points lower.

In other words, the 2.3 point college attendance advantage for district schools might be due to the fact that charters are more racially diverse and have higher concentrations of poverty. The numbers may also suggest that charter schools as a whole aren’t discouraging disadvantaged students from enrolling, and, as a recent study found, aren’t likely to be pushing students out either.

Table: Percentage of students and teachers by school type.

Public Charter Private
Title I (Low-income) 36.9 48.8 3.7
Free and Reduced Lunch (Low-income) 47.3 51.5 8.2
IEP (Special Needs) 11.7 9.9 7.1
ELL/LEP (English language learners) 9.1 9.8 2.6
12th Grade College Enrollment Rate  39.5  37.2  64.2
Students Nonwhite 45 62.4 27.8
Teachers Nonwhite 17.7 30.1 12.4
Principals Nonwhite 19 35 12.7


Here are some other interesting tidbits that may illuminate differences between the two sectors:

The average district teacher will work about one week less than a charter school teacher over the course of a year, but will earn $8,900 (20 percent) more. And don’t think the pay differential is due to significantly larger class sizes. District class sizes are likely to be 4 percent smaller than charters in primary school and 9 percent larger (2 students) in high school.

The staffing survey also shows charters are better at placing minorities in teaching and leadership positions. Just 17.7 percent of district teachers and 19 percent of district principals are nonwhite, compared to 30.1 percent of charter teachers and 35 percent of charter principals. For the record, nonwhites make up 36 percent of the American workforce. It’s likely the traditional certification process is a major barrier to employing minorities in teaching and education leadership positions.

The survey data alone can’t tell us whether charter schools or district schools perform better. But it’s still fun poking in the data and exploring the differences.

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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


I feel like you are writing for the “I love charter schools” crowd. As for the data I couldn’t look at it as I didn’t have a license, though I do know mathematician would have a field day about comparing data of such different sizes. I also know that the CREDO said nationwide, Charter Schools are serving slightly more children in poverty than public schools but in Florida that’s not the case. In fact they serve fewer ESOL and ESE students as well. And despite those and other advantages like counseling out poor behaviors, see NYC’s success charter schools and the Washington DC charter school study, it’s more recent and we know who is studied unlike your site and it shows how they counsel out poor performers.

As for Florida there is mounting evidence that they do that here as well: A public charter school can’t pick and choose which students it wants to keep, Dot Clark (Pinellas County charter school coordinator) said. “Cherry picking” students would allow a school to boost its test scores, attendance rates and other performance measures. “We’re asking: Are you doing that? And if so, what’s the justification? And it needs to stop.”

I don’t see how anybody can objectively look at the charter school movement, and I acknowledge there are pockets of good charter schools and a few good ones here and there and say as it is being done it is a good thing. I really don’t and this is from somebody who loves the concept of parent/teacher driven laboratories of innovation free of often burdensome red tape.

The Washington Post recently had a great piece that should alarm even charter school supporters:

Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi Chris,

Thanks for writing. I will actually be addressing your concerns on Success and D.C. soon. Critics are actually making an apples to oranges comparison because they’re excluding all the students transferred out of public schools and into alternative schools.

Yes, it’s true, public schools DON’T have to teach every student and they can, in fact, weed out the bad behavior kids.

As for “cherry picking students” there isn’t any overall trend, only cherry picked anecdotal stories. In fact, there are actual studies that charter schools (and even private voucher schools) aren’t cherry picking students:

Basically, a few people are seeing a few anecdotes, assuming the worst and drawing broad conclusions.

You may not be aware, but the reason why charters turn to management companies is, in part, the access to capital. Critics have done their best to hamper the growth and development of charters and one of the most effective ways has been to cut off charter schools from access to school capital funds (and even buying closed public school buildings).

You wrote: Yes, it’s true, public schools DON’T have to teach every student and they can, in fact, weed out the bad behavior kids. I hope you aren’t going to give me a few anecdotes, assuming the worst and drawing broad conclusions.

Patrick R. Gibbons

I don’t have to give you anecdotes. Read the Jay P. Greene blog post – it highlights a recent study showing in a major urban school district poor performing students were more likely to be shoved out the door in public schools.

If that isn’t good enough the NCES has a collection of data

1.1 percent of all public school students are attending alternative schools (this category does not include vocational or special needs schools either).

Another 0.2 percent of public school students are expelled completely.

Jay Greene, oh he’s a middle of the road source I tell you and aren’t those 1.1 percent still in public schools? As for 0.2 percent being expelled that’s considerably less than those being expelled in D.C. and I would bet around the country from charters.

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