Raleigh News & Observer reporters Jane Stancill, Lynn Bonner and David Raynor recently authored a number of lengthy and highly critical articles on public charter schools in North Carolina. The imbalance is breathtaking. If you don’t believe me, go to the paper’s web site and access the education page.
I take issue with numerous points the authors raise. In this article, however, I’d like to limit my comments to two of the general criticisms raised about charters and ones highlighted in the article published by the News & Observer on October 10th and titled, Why NC charter schools are richer and whiter.
The first sentence of the article says it all. It reads:
Charter schools in North Carolina are more segregated than traditional public schools and have more affluent students.
My issue is not only with the authors’ conclusion but also with the expectation that charter school enrollment should mirror enrolment at traditional public schools. Yes, I’m aware of the requirements – or guidelines – that they do so. But charter schools are different by design. Hence any effort to make one school like the other is invalid and flawed.
Yet the authors persist. They claim charter schools are more segregated than traditional public schools. I disagree.
If you review the table of racial demographics listed in the article, you will note that the percentage of whites in charter schools has actually declined from 60 percent in 2014 to 56 percent today. The trendlines in the data lead you to believe that charter schools are becoming less white. It should also be noted that the difference in the percentage white population between charters and traditional public schools has declined; from 11 percent in 2014 to 7 percent in 2017..
N&O reporters are saying the difference in the percentage of whites in each population (7 percent; 56 percent in charter schools, 49 percent in traditional public schools) is unacceptable. Seven percent is unacceptable to the authors, but what about 3 percent? Or 5 percent? Who is to say what is acceptable, especially when the actual differences between the two populations have been declining?
Looking at the percentage change in minority population over the same time might help to shed some light on this question. It is interesting to note that except for this year, the percentage of African-American students enrolled in charter and traditional public schools from 2013 through 2017 was identical: 26 percent. The only other significant difference between the two populations concerned Hispanic students. Hispanics comprise 9 percent of charter school enrollment, up from 7 percent in 2014. In traditional public schools, Hispanics comprise 16 percent of all students, a number which has grown slightly in recent years only to decline 1 percent in 2017.
The main point is that when you consider the trendlines and the actual numbers, the differences in racial composition between charters and traditional public schools aren’t as significant as the authors suggest.
The authors also claim that wealthier students are enrolling in charters at a greater pace than low income students.
A 2012 study by Nate Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is cited. It found that “charter schools in North Carolina serve dramatically fewer poor students than the five traditional public schools that are their closest neighbors.”
Such statements raise several problems. For starters, the problem here is that the study is from 2012. The results are well before the charter school boom came after the removal of the charter school cap in 2011.
The N&O authors go on to cite the AEI study:
More recent state data shows charters continue to draw greater proportions of wealthier students. Information from the federal Title I program shows that 33 percent of students enrolled in charters in the 2016-17 school year were low-income, compared to 53 percent in traditional public schools.
These numbers may have been reported, however, I believe them to be largely inaccurate. Although I couldn’t access the study from the AEI web site, my guess is that Malkus used the percentage of free-and-reduced lunch (FRL) to assess poverty in charter and public schools.
There are many reasons why FRL is not a valid indicator of poverty. Essentially, FRL provides free lunch for anyone living at or below 130 percent of the poverty line and reduced price lunch for those at 185 percent of the poverty line or below. While most of this information is supposed to be self-reported, that’s not necessarily the case.
Congress has expanded FRL support to anyone who receives other forms of public support, like food stamps. Secondly, Congress now provides what is known as “community eligibility.” That means schools where at least 40 percent of the students are identified as eligible for FRL, now provide free lunches to all their students. In addition, if you meet these qualifications, the task of completing the paper applications is forever eliminated moving forward. As Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, this helped to create the main problem with using FRL: the percentage of FRL students has risen steadily as the proportion of kids classified as low income has fallen. For greater detail on these problems, see here and here.
The bottom line: FRL is simply not a valid indicator. Using such expansive numbers is the only way to generate such unbelievable figures like 53 percent of students in traditional public schools are classified as low income.
Reporters commonly respond to this objection by saying we aren’t using FRL figures; they use Title I eligibility figures. Those who do ignore that Title I eligibility includes the number of students that qualify for FRL . It’s part of the eligibility determination.
Hence, citing Title I figures does not get around this problem. Doing so only reproduces the errors that lead to inflated numbers and invalid comparisons – and we won’t even mention the many claims that the FRL programs are riddled with fraud and waste. As such there are many compelling reasons to question the percentages of poor and wealthy students in traditional public and charter schools.
Bonner, Stancill and Raynor size up charters through a public school lens and give the schools a failing grade in large part because they don’t mirror the characteristics of public schools. The reporter’s views reflect a general ignorance of the distinct intentional differences between charters and traditional public schools. In contrast to traditional public schools, many charter schools are based on academic models oriented toward a specific academic group or demographic. These distinctives help to draw a student to the school in a much different way than students who enroll in traditional public schools
Charters are meant to have more flexibility. Charter schools and traditional public schools don’t have the same incentives to engage in every program or seek every federal or state dollar. Nor are they meant to. The truth is transportation and school lunch programs are optional in both traditional and charter schools. Nearly all traditional schools provide these programs. A lower percentage of charter schools do for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with flexibility and cost. Still, what is often forgotten is that those needs are frequently met in other ways.
The N&O reporters also fault charters for segregation and a lack of commitment to diversity. The charge that charter schools led to increased segregation is also dubious. What’s often ignored is that many charters are placed in segregated neighborhoods. Some charters are designed to serve a specific population (e.g. African American males, science students, musicians etc.)
Each school is distinctive and where it is located will significantly impact enrollment. At the same time, charter schools are expected to mirror a similar enrollment to their neighboring public schools. Yes, charters should try to mirror the demographics of the surrounding population, but how is that possible if a school has a targeted demographic or a certain percentage of enrollment decisions are made by lottery?
Raleigh News & Observer reporters say charter schools in North Carolina are whiter and richer than their traditional public school counterparts. Besides ignoring the many questionable assumptions behind the assertion, reporters failed to build a valid case.
Charters are public schools. They are by nature designed to be different, more flexible and experimental. Charter school supporters believe the public has the responsibility to hold such schools accountable. Any public assessment should be impartial, respect the differences between charter and traditional public schools, include a solid methodology and involve valid comparisons. It’s the same criteria on which charter school reporting should be judged.
Diversity may be a consideration for charter school enrollment, but I take issue with a system that elevates diversity to the top of the list of criteria on which charter schools are judged. The endless bean counting of race does little but make us more conscious of race. Let’s be clear: there is no research that conclusively states that diversity enhances academic achievement. Nor is there any settled public opinion as to the academic benefits of diversity. It’s a subject that N&O reporters would do well to explore – but they don’t. The experience of Wake County and other school districts with school assignment plans based on theories of income and social integration demonstrate that they deliver less than promised and that public support for plans to enhance diversity is far from settled.