Data Wonk

The Charter School Dilemma

They perform better and are supported by most black voters — but opposed by most white Democrats.

By - Nov 13th, 2019 05:17 pm
School classroom. Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

School classroom.

Every year, the education policy journal Education Next surveys public opinion on a variety of education issues including charter schools. In its January 2020 issue, it reports that while “public support for charter schools has climbed back to 48% from a low of 39% in 2017,” that support has congealed along partisan lines:

… the political environment for charters is shifting. For more than two decades after the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota in 1992, charters seemed to be the one choice initiative backed by Democrats and Republicans alike. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, oversaw the creation of a federal program to support charter-school growth, and his Republican successor, George W. Bush, sought to increase its funding. The Democratic administration of Barack Obama subsequently included charter expansion in its Race to the Top initiative.

The next graph shows how various groups responded to the following question:

As you may know, many states permit the formation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but are not managed by the local school board. These schools are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations. Do you support or oppose the formation of charter schools?

Support or Oppose Charter Schools

Support or Oppose Charter Schools

The result shows higher support for charter schools among Republican and black respondents than Democrats. And no group was more opposed to them than members of teachers unions.

How do the students do in charter schools? A recent Data Wonk column looked at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results and found disappointing results for both Wisconsin statewide and in Milwaukee. However, NAEP results are only available for whole states and cities, not by type of school. For that we can turn to Wisconsin’s own testing program, using its “Forward” exam.

Both NAEP and the Forward exams share certain characteristics. For instance, both group student results into four proficiency levels depending on their scores on the exam: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, and Below Basic. Historically Wisconsin’s levels were substantially less challenging than those set by NAEP. Is that still true?

The chart below compares the percentage of Wisconsin students taking the 4th or 8th grade reading (also called ELA for English language arts) and math test scoring at each level according to NAEP and according to Wisconsin’s Forward exam. Each pair of columns compares the NAEP results with their equivalent Wisconsin exam.

NAEP vs DPI Results for Wisconsin

NAEP vs DPI Results for Wisconsin

The results look pretty similar at each grade level, suggesting the recent changes in Wisconsin’s testing regime have largely eliminated the differences in difficulty between the Wisconsin state testing and NAEP. This conclusion is also supported when comparing results for Milwaukee students, as shown below.

NAEP vs DPI Results for Milwaukee

NAEP vs DPI Results for Milwaukee

Because NAEP is based on a statistical sample of 4th and 8th grade students, it does not release results for individual schools. Thus, it cannot be used directly to make judgements about the effectiveness of charter schools. However, the similarity between the distributions of results when measured by NAEP and by DPI for both Wisconsin and MPS suggest that Forward exam results reasonably predict what the NAEP would find if it were applied to all students.

In the following discussion, I look at two classes of Milwaukee charters:

  • Those chartered by the school board are called “noninstrumentality” charters because they have their own boards and do their own hiring, in contrast to “instrumentality” charters which are staffed by MPS but may be relieved of some requirements applied to other MPS schools.
  • Those chartered by other entities. In Milwaukee the active charter authorizers are the Milwaukee Common Council and UW-Milwaukee. The schools are sometimes called “2r” charters, referring to the section of state law authorizing them, or as “independent” charters. The Department of Public Instruction, in its database used to prepare the school report cards, labels them as “Non District Charter Schools.”

In the following graphs I combined the results from both types of charter schools. I also removed the noninstrumentality charters from the MPS results, leaving traditional public schools.

The next chart shows the percentage of students falling into each of the proficiency levels for the charter schools (on the left) and the traditional public schools (on the right) on the 4th grade reading test. Compared to the traditional public schools, charter schools seem to enjoy an upward shift in reading achievement.

4th Grade Reading Scores for Milwaukee

4th Grade Reading Scores for Milwaukee

The next chart shows the distribution of 8th grade reading scores.

8th Grade Reading Scores for Milwaukee

8th Grade Reading Scores for Milwaukee

The 4th grade mathematics scores are shown next and follow the same pattern.

4th Grade Math Scores for Milwaukee

4th Grade Math Scores for Milwaukee

Finally, here is the distribution of 8th grade math scores.

8th Grade Math Scores for Milwaukee

8th Grade Math Scores for Milwaukee

The next graph plots the ratio of Milwaukee charter school students to the total of MPS and charter school students at each proficiency level on the 4th and 8th grade math and reading tests. For example, of students scoring Below Basic on the 4th grade reading test, about 13 percent were attending noninstrumentality and independent charter schools. At the Advanced level, on the other hand, about 40 percent were in charter schools.

Charter Percentage of Proficiency Levels

Charter Percentage of Proficiency Levels

The next chart summarizes the ethnic mix of students attending the independent charter schools, calculated from the DPI’s 2017-18 school report card database (school report card data for the 2018-19 have not been released yet). Compared to MPS students (including noninstrumentality charter schools), African American and Hispanic students are over-represented in charter schools, while the proportion of white and Asian students is lower.

Ethnicity of Independent Charter Students

Ethnicity of Independent Charter Students

This analysis brings up two questions. The first is how real is the apparent charter school advantage? Is the apparent relationship between attending a charter school and an upward shift in proficiency level due to the school, such as the school’s greater flexibility? Or is there some other cause? Perhaps the very decision to enroll in a charter school a reflection of putting a higher value on education.

The second question is how the Democratic candidates for president will deal with the issue of charter schools. A look at the poll results shown earlier emphasizes their quandary. Public school teachers in unions are the group most hostile to charter schools. Public school teachers and their unions make up an important element in the Democratic base.

As the Education Next’s Martin West notes in a separate article, “Democratic candidates depend on turnout from African American and Hispanic voters.” Breaking down the survey results “shows that the decline in support for charter schools has been driven entirely by white Democrats. While a plurality of white Democrats supported charters in 2016, they now oppose charters by a 57 percent to 33 percent margin. Black Democrats, in contrast, support charters by a 55 percent to 29 percent margin. The balance of support among Democrats who identify as Hispanic is narrower but still positive, at 47 percent to 42 percent.”

Sometimes the messenger matters more than the message. In 2016, when white Democrats thought about charter schools, they saw Barack Obama, a strong supporter. Today, they may see Betsy DeVos. The result may be driving while and black Democrats in a different direction on this issue.

8 thoughts on “Data Wonk: The Charter School Dilemma”

  1. mkwagner says:

    You ask the wrong question. It is not about whether charter schools are better than public schools; it’s about which schools are better for which students. Charters schools do not perform better than public schools for all children. In fact, most charters do not have the capacity to meet the needs of high risk or developmentally challenged students. The costs associated with educating these students is significantly higher than average students. However, high need students end up being funneled into public schools. This is particularly true in urban school districts such as Milwaukee. Over the last decade, funding for public schools have been cut to finance charter and private schools. In essence what is happening is funds used to educate the most disadvantaged students are being siphoned off for charter and private schools.
    Until we as a society accept that our economy needs all of our children educated to their fullest capability and we commit to providing the funding to make that possible; educational outcomes will continue to be spotty at best.

  2. Hawk says:

    Amen, my.

  3. dmkrueger2 says:

    Or there’s more than one question.

  4. RRPs says:

    Great reporting Mr Bruce , will people act , will the insiders begin making children a priority .

    45 years of this is simple not fair to the children , how many children will die , placed in jail or put down because of the logic used in their priorities ?

    Keep coming sir we need you —what would you say are the very basic root causes for teachers thinking about themselves versus children . That was the explanation a suburban retired union president said to me after a number of years of asking .

    You two are really doing well congratulations .

  5. Ryan Cotic says:

    School choice is the civil rights movement of our era. Being born lower income and or a minority should not mean that you cant go to whatever school your parents chose! These polls show the true racism of the white democratics who care only about their own special interests and power. Very sad

  6. Thomas Martinsen says:

    mkwagner’s post # 1 makes good points. Public schools need more support to educate all citizens in a democracy. The percents of persons who support choice schools are not very high. The notions that teachers who do not support choice schools are self serving and that white democrats who oppose choice schools are racist are ignorant and repugnant.

  7. Thomas Martinsen says:

    The U.S.A. became a great nation due in part to the strength of our public education system. In our current decline in status in the world, we have an Education Secretary who I understand has never attended a public school, who sent her children to private schools exclusively – who appears to have limited interest in public education.

    Let’s get real for a minute, now. Tearing down may be fun for anarchists, but we need to be building up. We can build up by supporting public education.

  8. Barbara Richards says:

    I have two parts to my comment. First, when you take money from the public schools, add it to the tuition that private charters already receive, and the foundation leverage that these schools receive, why would you not want your child to go to a school where they weed out those they don’t want and that is fixed up all swanky! Second, you might not bite if you are aware that the goal is privatization and union busting – two of the three goals of the Friedman Chicago School of Economics. Even then you will probably take a chance that your child will one of the ones who stays enrolled. Why privatization? You can set up a business to make money and pay yourself a big salary! It’s not about the children, its about money. Public schools are about the children.

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