Reports on charter school transfers miss a larger truth

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This week, two news reports were released that create the mistaken impression that charter school students in Chicago are more likely to transfer out than students who attend traditional schools. While the stories relied heavily on individual anecdotes, they ignored the only systematic, comprehensive data on charter transfer rates in Chicago. What is even more puzzling is that the stories relied on an “internal CPS memo” when public comparison data is available on the Chicago Public Schools website.

A review of this data makes clear that charter schools have transfer rates that are in fact lower than comparable schools:

•    9 out of 10 charter schools in Chicago have transfer rates that are lower than the neighborhood public schools that their students would have otherwise attended.
•    Of the 74 charter campuses examined in the report, 67 of those campuses experienced transfer rates that were substantially lower than the comparison neighborhood school examined.
•    When weighted by enrollment, the net transfer rate of charter schools is roughly half the rate of comparison neighborhood schools.

The articles also missed a larger truth about charter schools: charter schools are schools of choice, unlike traditional public schools and the magnet schools referenced in the articles. This means that students may choose to attend charter schools or, if those students determine that the school is not serving their needs, they may choose to leave. Providing diverse, tailored options should be viewed as a benefit to the system not a drawback.

Charter schools are also far from monolithic. They serve diverse populations within the school system and each is tailored to serve a pressing student need within CPS. KIPP Ascend, for instance, uses a college-going culture to prepare elementary students for lifelong success and has a very different mission that Youth Connections Charter Schools, a drop-out prevention and recovery network designed to serve students who have struggled in a traditional high school setting. In the context of such disparate models, it is very difficult to generalize results.

Not every charter school is perfect, and the charter school model may not fit every student who chooses to attend. Indeed, it is not uncommon for students who transfer into charter schools to take some time to adjust, a point acknowledged in the Catalyst article. Charter schools typically have longer school days, longer school years, and higher academic and behavioral expectations for their students. This is something that those of us working to improve public education should applaud, not decry. Frankly, I wish all of our public school students had the benefit of similar settings where they can be challenged, held accountable, and receive the benefit of additional instructional time.

Does this mean that there haven’t been instances of counseling out among the 41,000 students attending charter schools in Chicago? No, but that is why we at INCS support authorizers who enforce the open enrollment provisions of the charter school law strictly, to ensure that all students have an equal chance of enrolling in a high quality school of choice. It is also why we work directly with charter schools and charter school networks every day to help them understand the provisions of law and make decisions that benefit students directly.

Perhaps most curious is the article’s claim that “[m]agnet schools are comparable to charter schools, with lotteries for coveted seats and no attendance boundaries.” Magnet schools may be comparable to charter schools in the narrow sense that they may be oversubscribed, but magnet schools have express enrollment preferences and frequently condition enrollment on test scores, something charter schools are prohibited from doing. This fact alone makes any magnet school comparison inapt. If one were to examine magnet school achievement data, for instance, it becomes immediately apparent that comparing such a school to an open enrollment charter school produces only heat, no light. Even a passing glance at magnet school admissions policies reveals why their student mobility rates are far lower than open enrollment schools, charter or traditional public.

One thing charter schools will not do is apologize for having high standards and expecting more out of teachers and students. After all, nothing is more important to our city’s future than creating schools where student needs are put ahead of all other considerations. For too long in our city we have tolerated a public school system that produces graduates who are not college or work ready and have made excuses for why certain students could not succeed. Thankfully, there are many schools today in Chicago, charter and traditional public that are proving that school organization, teacher quality, student discipline, and true accountability matter.

Charter schools that succeed do so because they are intentional about setting a culture of high expectations that permeate the school. This culture touches on every aspect of the school’s organization and is designed to create an environment in which students can thrive. This culture is evidenced by the fact that charter high schools, unlike traditional high schools, do not have any metal detectors. Despite this lack of “protection,” incidents of violence in charter schools are far fewer than those in traditional public schools. A cynic might claim this is because charter schools just happen to enroll more peaceful students; a realist would understand that getting school culture right is the first step in creating schools that actually work for our students.

Andrew Broy
The Illinois Network of Charter Schools

Editor’s note: Catalyst Chicago welcomes comments. However, there are several points we would like to address so that our readers clearly understand the strong basis for our report.

First, our report was not based on an internal memo from Chicago Public Schools, which was used only to provide context. Our report relied on transfer data reported directly to the Illinois State Board of Education by charter schools. Deputy Editor Sarah Karp filed two separate Freedom of Information Act requests for the raw data that Chicago Public Schools uses to compute the transfer rates presented in the district’s annual charter school report, which you refer to. The rates included in that report are the product of a complex formula that takes into account the number of minutes in each charter school year, although there is no rationale for taking the length of the school year into account. An accurate transfer rate is most reliably calculated using enrollment and the number of students who left the school during the year.

In response to Karp’s FOIA requests, CPS produced two databases with different numbers. The CPS research office eventually admitted that it could not figure out which set of raw numbers was used to produce the transfer rate that the district reports. As a result, we relied on the ISBE report, which presents self-reported transfer data from charters.

Second, we intentionally included interviews from parents who support strict rules in charters, and with students who, despite having transferred out, wanted to go back. So in fact, we did not “miss the larger truth” about charters being schools of choice.

Third, the CPS website clearly states that in magnet schools, “Students are selected by a computerized lottery.” Magnet schools do not use test scores for admission, do not have attendance boundaries and select students from across the city—just like charter schools.