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Study: Majority of U.S. charter schools perform equal or worse than traditional schools

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The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged and special education students. – Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO at Stanford University

SALT LAKE CITY — A new study of 26 states, including Utah, suggests that charter schools have made modest gains in student performance but have not yet surpassed their traditional school counterparts en masse.

In the study, released Tuesday by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, researchers found that charter schools had improved since a similar study in 2009, but noted that those gains were partly due to the closure of underperforming charter schools.

"The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged and special education students,” said Margaret Raymond, director of CREDO at Stanford University. “As welcome as these changes are, more work remains to be done to ensure that all charter schools provide their students high-quality education.”

In the 26 states that participated in the study, which together account for 95 percent of the nation's charter school students, researchers again found that most charter schools are performing no better, if not worse, than their traditional school counterparts in reading and mathematics, based on standardized tests.

Nationwide, 25 percent of charter schools show significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts. The remaining 75 percent of charter schools showed either no signficant difference or were significantly weaker than traditional schools.

In math, 29 percent of charter schools outperform their traditional counterparts, with 40 percent showing no difference and 31 percent posting learning gains signficantly weaker than traditional schools.

By comparison, the center's 2009 study found that 17 percent of charter schools outperformed their counterparts, 37 percent underperformed and 46 percent were not significantly different.

"Despite these improvements, there remain worrying numbers of charter schools whose learning gains are either substantially worse than the local alternative or are insufficient to give their students the academic preparation they need to continue their education or be successful in the workforce," the study's executive summary states.

Learning days

The study also measured performance in school days, translating the deviation between charter and traditional schools as the equivalent number of learning days a student either gained or lost during a school year by choosing to attend a charter option.

Charter school attendance was found to be the most beneficial for minority students, English language learners and students who live in poverty. Black charter school students were found to gain an equivalent of 14 extra days of learning in both math and reading, with English language learners gaining 36 days in both subjects over their traditional school peers.

But for white students, charter school attendance was found to be detrimental, with students losing out on the equivalent of 14 days of reading and 50 days of math.

"What we see here is white students and Asian students are not benefiting from attendance in charter schools," Raymond said.

While those numbers reflect the nation's charter schools overall, Utah's charter schools were also found to be performing behind their traditional school counterparts. According to the study, the average charter school student in Utah receives the equivalent learning of seven fewer days in reading and 43 fewer days of math than their peers in traditional schools.

Enrollment increasing

Approximately 4 percent of the nation’s public school students are enrolled in charter schools, according to the Stanford study, with more than 2.3 million students in more than 6,000 schools in 41 states. Enrollment in charter schools has increased 80 percent nationwide since 2009.

In Utah, charter schools accounted for 8 percent of Utah's public school enrollment during the 2012-13 school year. Last fall, total charter enrollment exceeded 50,000 students for the first time after a 13.2 percent jump in enrollment over 2011.

That growth is expected to continue with the scheduled opening of eight new charter schools this fall with a combined capacity of 3,800 students, according to data from the Utah State Office of Education.

Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, had not yet seen the study as of press time Monday and could not comment on its specifics but said he was happy to hear that charter schools had shown overall improvement.

Bleak said a charter school that performs equal to or even behind its school district counterpart should not necessarily be closed as there may be unique nonacademic features to a school that parents value.

He also said that since enrollment at a charter school is optional, whether a school closes or remains open is determined by the market demand of students attending that school, unlike traditional schools that are charged with the education of all children within their boundaries.

Bleak said that kind of market competition forces charter schools to innovate and improve or face extinction due to lack of students.

"I think that’s a powerful concept," he said. "It’s why, ultimately, I like to see the money follow the kid, because I think children should have choice and there’s value in providing different educational opportunities for different kids."

Bleak also said he was encouraged by recent actions by the State Charter School Board aimed at increasing the accountability of charter schools, as well as new statewide school grading that will lead to greater transparency on school performance.

"I’m all for them holding schools accountable to the performance they say they will get," he said. "If a school doesn’t do as well over a sustained period of time, you need to look at why that school is not doing as well as its counterparts, and that includes charter schools."

Empowered by choice

Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, said the continued growth of charter school education, as well as the thousands of Utah families currently on waiting lists to enroll their students, is a clear indication that the alternative schools have something to offer.

"I think the demand for charter schools, more than a decade later, really testifies to how important choice is for Utah parents," she said. "Choice is a funny thing. Once people have it, once they are empowered by that opportunity, it does continue to grow."

On race and demographics, Clark said that while Utah's charter schools may not be the most racially diverse — less than 1 percent of Utah's charter school students are black, according to the CREDO study — schools are still finding ways to individualize education for students who come from a variety of economic and academic backgrounds.

"We look differently than other states, but our charter school community is serving the diverse needs of our population here," she said. "Our charter schools are not just serving our most advantaged populations. They are reaching down into every aspect of the community and they are making a difference."

Clark also responded to Utah's relatively low marks in the CREDO report. She said choice empowers parents to seek out the best educational opportunity for their children, and the growing popularity of charter schooling is evidence that Utah's parents continue to see a value.

"Obviously, our parents are seeing something different between their neighborhood school and their charter school, and they're dissatisfied with their neighborhood option," she said.

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

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