by Jon Pelto, Wait, What
Despite their rhetoric, not only are most of Connecticut’s charter schools actually increasing racial isolation, they are naively or knowingly overlooking key factors in their ongoing claims that they provide better educational outcomes.
A review of Connecticut’s School Profile Reports raises even more serious questions and concerns are about some of Connecticut’s largest charter schools.
Meanwhile, advocates and lobbyists are engaged in a major effort to persuade policymakers to adopt a concept called “Money Follows the Child” in the upcoming 2012 Legislative Session.
The policy change would move scarce resources away from the public schools systems that presently educate about 99% of Connecticut public school students.
Instead of trying to expand the pot of money that is provided for primary and secondary education in Connecticut, thereby helping all public school children, some charter school supporters have changed their strategy and are now pushing to modify the state’s school funding system so that when a child shifts from a public school to a charter school all of the state money associated with the education of that student would shift as well.
This approach would leave more and more of Connecticut’s public schools without the money needed to provide comprehensive education programs and would, in the end, threaten the quality of education in our public schools while leading to higher local property taxes as towns are forced to rely even more heavily on regressive property taxes.
At stake are both the issue of racial segregation and the quality of education in Connecticut.
At the core of the debate is the fundamental principle that federal and state laws prohibit the use of public funds to promote racial and ethnic segregation. However, virtually every one of Connecticut’s major charter schools, all of whom receive major state subsidies, are not only failing to reduce racial isolation but are, in fact, significantly less racially diverse than the public schools in the same communities.
While some charter schools, like the Odyssey School in Manchester are successfully meeting the diversity challenge, others, especially those run by Achievement First, a major charter school operator with charter schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island is not.
For example, Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy, Achievement First’s Hartford Academy, Achievement First’s Amistad Academy and Achievement First’s Elm City Preparatory are all significantly more racially isolated than are the school systems in which they are based – Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven.
As the state spends literally hundreds of millions of dollars to address its moral, legal and constitutional responsibility to make our schools less racially isolated, Connecticut’s charter schools are moving Connecticut in exactly the wrong direction.
What makes this issue particularly troubling is that Connecticut’s new State Commissioner of Education has repeatedly said he will work to expand charter schools in Connecticut even though it is clear from the evidence that most charter schools are unwilling or unable to be a part of the overall effort to reduce racial isolation in our state.
While conveniently overlooking the growing racial isolation in charter schools, Achievement First and other major urban charter schools base their demand for more public funds by claiming that their standardized test scores prove that their charter schools are providing students with a superior education.
However, there is a fundamental flaw in the argument these charter school advocates are putting forward
Putting aside the broader problems associated with using standardized mastery tests to measure educational outcomes; there is overwhelming evidence that test scores are impacted by a number of factors beyond simply what is going on in the classroom.
Study after study has indicated that poverty and standardized test scores (like the mastery test) are closely correlated. More poverty means lower school test scores; less poverty means higher school test scores.
What policymakers are not regularly told is that although poverty level in all urban schools are high (both at charter and at traditional public schools), the students at many of Connecticut’s urban charter schools are significantly “less poor” than the students who attend the public schools in those same communities.
In Bridgeport, where 99% of the city’s public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, according to the data provided to the State Department of Education, the number of students who meet that standard at Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy is more than 30 points percentage points lower.
The percentage of students at the other two major Bridgeport charters (The Bridge Academy and Park City Preparatory) who qualify for free or reduced lunches are also significantly lower than in the Bridgeport school system.
There is a similar pattern in Hartford, where 93% of public schools students qualify for free or reduced lunches compared to 68% at Achievement First’s Harford Academy and 72% at the Jumoke Academy charter school.
And it is the same in New Haven, where 81% of all New Haven public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches, while at the Amistad Academy 66% meet that poverty standard. At Achievement First’s other New Haven charter school, Elm City College Prep charter school, the number of students getting free or reduced lunches is 69%.
Considering these schools are more racially isolated these statistics indicate that charter schools have the effect of leaving the poorer students in each city’s public schools systems.
According to their marketing materials and testimony at legislative hearings, charter schools claim that their students score 10 to 30 percent better on master tests than do students in the nearby public schools.
However, a portion of that difference may be due to the poverty level of the students served in those schools.
An even greater impact may come from the language barriers students bring with them to school.
When it comes to the Connecticut Mastery Tests (3-8 grades), 84% of all Connecticut students score at the proficient or better level in math. However, for English Language Learners (ELL students) that is, “students who lack sufficient mastery of English,” the percent of students who achieve a proficient or better score drops all the way down to 57%.
The language barrier has an even more stunning impact on the test results for the reading portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test. While 78% of all Connecticut students score at the proficient level or better, only 37% of ELL (those not proficient in the English Language) test at the proficient level or better.
These numbers mean that schools that have more ELL students do significantly worse than schools that don’t have as many non-English proficient students.
So, back to the data on charter schools:
In Bridgeport, 13% of the public school students are ELL students. At Achievement First’s Bridgeport Academy the number is just 6%.
Less than ½ of 1% of the students at The Bridge Academy charter school are ELL students, while only 2.5% of the students at Park City Prep charter school are ELL.
In Hartford, where over 17% of public school students are non-English proficient (ELL), the percent of ELL students at Achievement First’s Harford Academy is less than 5% and there are literally no ELL students at the Jumoke Academy charter school.
In New Haven, the disparity is less prevalent. 12% of New Haven public school students are ELL, which is similar to the percent at the Amistad Academy charter school, but at Elm City College Prep charter school only 9% of the students are ELL.
While the impact of these statistics has yet to be fully documented, the fact remains that Connecticut’s charter schools are simply not in a position to claim that the quality of their education programs are substantially better than the education in the public schools.
Charter schools may claim that they utilize an “open lottery system and that allows every child to have access to their schools, but the facts simply don’t back up the charter schools’ claim that their student populations represent the full spectrum of students that attend public schools. Therefore their claim of educational superiority doesn’t add up.
Before Connecticut policy makers shift additional resources from Connecticut’s public schools to the charter schools they have an obligation to address these fundamental issues.
Achievement First and a number of the other urban charter schools are more racially isolated, they educate a student population that is less poor and they fail to take on their fair share of non-English proficient (ELL) students.
While CMT test scores in charter schools may be marginally higher than public school scores, the evidence suggests that their teaching methods may not fully explain those results.
The Governor and the Legislature should be seeking answers to these questions before turning over any more of the taxpayers’ money to these schools.