Question mark in Esbjerg by Alexander Henning Drachmann

A Lively Debate

Last night, I entered into a very engaging exchange with the person who manages the Twitter account for @COCharterSchool – whom I later found out is a very nice person named Stacy Rader, the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Director of Communications!

I had a number of questions for Stacy about charter schools after reading through the Colorado League of Charter Schools brand new marketing document – an annual report with a lot of tables about charter schools (most in comparison with what they call “traditional public schools”) and a calendar with lots of great photos of kids and other facts.  I’ve put together a Storify document that captures our exchange, linked below.  Do note that I changed some of the order of tweets so the questions and answers are together.

To Stacy’s credit, we ended the discussion agreeing to sit down and talk more and she was kind enough to offer to come to Eagle County with the League’s new President, Nora Flood.  We haven’t been able to find a mutually agreeable date yet, but we are working on that and I’m sure Stacy will follow through.

For me, the discussion generated a lot more thinking about charter schools.  So, I present those questions here to hopefully spur more discussion and a deeper examination on the larger school reform theory related to school choice.


Before I begin, a disclaimer to those who may become defensive at my questions.

I am not an opponent of charter schools or of school choice, though I do have some concerns about their ability to raise the performance of an entire system. As state chief in Iowa, I worked with the tremendous staff at the Iowa Department of Education and introduced, through Governor Terry Branstad, arguably the best legislation (my professional opinion!) in the history of the United States on charter schools.  Unfortunately or fortunately depending on your perspective, this legislation never actually passed!  Our proposed legislation recognized that the founding and principle role of the charter school movement was innovation.

With this in mind, our legislation would have dramatically freed charters from a number of state requirements, but also put in place strong accountability provisions and was quick to close charters that weren’t performing at least as well as their competing schools.  It also had strong provisions to safeguard equity and make sure charters were really open to every student.

Also, Eagle County Schools, where I am currently Superintendent, is the charter school authority over the Eagle County Charter Academy, a K-8 charter school that is part of our district.  They have a tremendous staff, a great principal, a supportive community, and great kids.  I also have a good relationship with the Headmaster of the Charter School Institute school in our community, Stone Creek Charter Academy.  It is run by John Brendza, who at one time was my boss, was actually the former superintendent of Eagle County Schools, and is a quality educator and person.

End Disclaimer

With all that said, I do have a number of questions about charter schools.  For the sake of parsimony, I will focus on a few key ones here.

Question 1:  What is the percentage of students served in charter schools that come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question:  According to the League’s marketing document, Colorado charters serve a population that is 34.8% Free/Reduced Lunch versus about 42.7% across the whole state.  I did note that this statistic presented the charter school percentage against the whole state percentage, and did not separate it to “traditional public schools” as they did with most every other statistic in the document.  Not sure if this was what they meant to do, if it was an oversight, of if it was an intentional distortion.

In any case, that’s about a 7% difference.  From this, we can infer that charter schools tend to serve more affluent students than other “traditional” public schools.  As we know poverty and achievement are highly correlated – take note as this will become an important fact for my next question.

This skimming off of affluent students is highly exacerbated in my community in Eagle County.  In 2011, our “traditional” public school system had a Free/Reduced rate of 42.5%.  That same year, Stone Creek Charter School, authorized by the Colorado Charter School Institute, had a Free/Reduced rate of 8.7% and the Eagle County Charter Academy, authorized by the district, served less than 1% Free/Reduced.  I am only presenting data here and I mean no slight to these schools – they are good places where good things are happening for kids.  But, whatever positive effects charter schools and school choice may have, it is also true that it has re-created “separate but equal” in our community.

All of these statistics can be verified here.

Question 2: Does the performance of Colorado charter schools outpace “traditional” public schools?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question:  Both the League’s marketing document and a report to the State Board of Education by CDE make this claim. Statewide, the League’s document shows an achievement range of between <1% and 6% of charter schools “outperforming traditional public schools” in reading, writing and math.

CDE makes a similar claim, saying “charter schools generally outperformed non-charter schools on state performance measures” and looks at the points earned on the state’s accountability performance framework.  CDE found roughly 4 point differences in achievement and growth with the advantage to charter schools, although their analysis indicates non-charters outperformed charters in post-secondary and workforce readiness by 9 points.  Although CDE states that charters outperform non-charters, their own analysis shows no statistical difference between the two on the overall performance framework.

So, looking at both of these analyses can we really make the inference that charter schools outperform “traditional public schools” or non-charters?  In my professional opinion, this is misleading to say the least.  Remember that charter schools, on average, serve a less impoverished student body than do non-charter schools – some 7% less in this case – and we know from piles of research that achievement and poverty are highly correlated.

Incidentally, charter schools in Colorado are also less likely to serve students with disabilities.  The CDE report indicates a little more than 9% of students in the state have a disability, where a little less than 7% in charter schools have a disability.

Unless the effects of poverty (and other student demographic variables which we know co-vary with achievement) are controlled for in the analysis (which neither the League nor CDE did), it is entirely inappropriate to make any claims related to one system “outperforming” the other.

The larger body of research is also unclear on the claim that charters outperform other schools, even controlling for poverty and other demographic factors.  This is an ongoing and raging national research area where no clear consensus exists. Given the weaker designs used in the League’s marketing report and in CDE’s report to the state board, we should have little confidence in their claims.

Question 3: Charter schools are touted as “public” schools – so how can they achieve this separation when it comes to economic and at-risk factors?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question: First, let me say that some charter schools intentionally target at-risk populations.  These students need and deserve a great education so I applaud charter schools who make the education of disadvantaged student groups their moral purpose.  However, this is not the case with all charter schools.

In reality, charter schools use a variety of approaches that effectively screen away more challenging students.  For example, it is not uncommon for charter schools to require parents to sign a “contract” which stipulates numerous hours of volunteer work or parental involvement.  Some charters require families to pledge financial donations to the school, sometimes in the order of thousands of dollars. Some charter schools require families to purchase computers or pay other hefty fees.  Still other charter schools have lottery systems, where families have to navigate an application and selection process.  Many charter schools do not offer lunch or transportation systems for students.  And more subtly, some (though certainly not all) charter schools “counsel” students with disabilities or who are learning English that, due to their special conditions, they would be better served in a “traditional” public school setting.

As underprivileged students are more likely to need these services, all of this creates another de facto sorting system.  All of these combine to form a significant barrier that families of economically disadvantaged or at-risk students are less able to navigate or clear.

As a result we see the systemic “skimming” across the whole system that I mentioned earlier.

Question 4: Even if we agree, for the sake of discussion, that charter schools are indeed “better,” what strategies do they use that we can replicate to improve the performance of the entire education system?

Answer/The Questions Behind the Question:  There exists an incredible variety of instructional philosophies, educational theories of change, strategies, and tactics within charter schools.  You have approaches including college prep schools, “no excuses” test prep schools, classical academics, core knowledge schools, expeditionary/experiential learning, STEM focus schools, Montessori schools, Latin schools, international schools, cyber-schools, KIPP schools, creative learning schools … the list is almost endless.

Because of the great variety of methods employed, it is nearly impossible to definitively say what aspect of the charter approach is working and what is not. Should we be using Montessori approaches or KIPP approaches? Should we have a STEM focus or put more kids into cyber/online schools?

Charter schools present a wondrous array of variability, but do little for us if the larger goal is an entire education system that performs at a consistently high level.

A Few Simple Requests

As I’ve stated previously, I’m not an opponent of charter schools.  There absolutely have been positive changes happen in our education system because of choice and competition.  But, when the charter movement makes claims that are unfounded for the sake of marketing, falters in its moral commitment to equity as a publicly funded institution, and makes the larger goal of systemic improvement for all students more elusive – we have to collectively stand up and say something.  Otherwise, we imperil the fate of our public education system and, by extension, our country as a result.  In sum, a few modest requests:

A.  Stop claiming charter schools “outperform” or are better than other schools as a marketing ploy to increase enrollment.  The evidence does not support this claim and you are intentionally misleading families.

B.  Find the moral commitment to equity which is foundational to all public institutions and aggressively remove barriers which have the de facto effect of excluding impoverished and at-risk students.

C.  Commit to being an important part of a larger system that exists to serve all students.  “Traditional” public schools are not your enemy; ignorance and poverty are our enemy.  We are brethren organizations and should have a shared goal of forming a high quality education system for the children of our communities.