As research makes it clearer that urban charter schools are outperforming district counterparts, critics of modern education reform have refocused their aim on the type of student that charters serve. At a recent town hall event in South Carolina, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton became the latest public figure to complain that charter schools fail to serve the neediest students. According to Clinton, “Most charter schools — I don’t want to say every one — but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.”
Charter schools retain at least as many, if not more, disadvantaged students than do surrounding district schools.
As with any pervasive myth, there is a kernel of truth to the statement. Or at least the first half. On average, charter schools do enroll fewer difficult-to-educate students, such as those with disabilities or who speak English as a second language, than traditional public schools.
The rest, however, is less solid. Anecdotes of underperforming students being pushed out of charter schools are common. The recent scandal of a principal in a prominent charter school having a “Got to Go” list of such students seemed to give teeth to the claim that charters systematically push out their most difficult students.
But the idea this is common practice is not backed up by any empirical data. In fact, researchers following the movements of individual students have found that charter schools retain at least as many, if not more, disadvantaged students than do surrounding district schools.
My analysis of enrollment data in New York City and Denver has found that students with disabilities and those who are learning English are substantially more likely to remain in their school if it is a charter than if it is a district school.
For instance, in New York City, four years after entry in kindergarten, 74% of students with disabilities who originally enrolled in a charter school were still enrolled there, compared to 69% of those who originally entered a district school. Among students who are learning English, 82% were still enrolled in their original charter school compared to only 70% of those who started in a district school.
Nor are charter schools pushing out students with low test scores. My research in Denver and New York City — as well as the analysis by Ron Zimmer and Cassandra Guarino of an anonymous urban school district in the Midwest — has found that students with low standardized test scores are just as likely to leave charter schools as they are to leave district schools.
While it remains possible that there are isolated areas where charters push out difficult-to-educate students, such similar results coming from very different urban school systems suggests these incidents are not systematic.
Charter schools do not draw from a privileged group of students by any measure. Urban charter schools are often located in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods — serving a third of students in Harlem, for instance.
It is true that charter schools could likely serve more disadvantaged students than they do currently. But the data shows that the challenge isn’t with keeping such students enrolled in charters, but rather with getting them to apply in the first place. We should encourage urban charter schools to further expand their efforts to actively recruit the most disadvantaged students.
And yet, it is worth reflecting on the type of student attending charter schools. Charter schools do not draw from a privileged group of students by any measure. Urban charter schools are often located in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods — serving a third of students in Harlem, for instance. At “worst,” their students are the most ambitious of a very disadvantaged group. According to the New York City Charter School Center, over 92% of Gotham’s charter school students are African-American or Hispanic, and 77% classify as economically disadvantaged.
As the research stands, urban charter schools are making an enormous difference in the lives of their students, and they retain their most challenging students at rates that exceed district schools. The burden is on Hillary Clinton to produce any convincing evidence to the contrary.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News.