Why Massachusetts Voters Should Think Twice About Charter Expansion
In his post, Weber compares the attrition of Boston charter high schools to Boston public high schools, and he considers groups of students who begin as 9th graders and remain at a given school to complete 12th grade (such a group is known as a cohort).
When comparing Boston charter high schools to Boston public high schools, Weber found that across ten graduation years (2005 to 2014), the lowest cohort percentage retained by Boston public high schools (66 percent) was higher than the highest cohort percentage retained by Boston charter high schools (56 percent). (Click image to enlarge.)
In the last decade, Boston’s charter sector has had substantially greater cohort attrition than the Boston Public Schools. In fact, even though the data is noisy, you could make a pretty good case the difference in cohort attrition rates has grown over the last five years.
Is this proof that the independent charters are doing a bad job? I wouldn’t say so; I’m sure these schools are full of dedicated staff, working hard to serve their students. But there is little doubt that the public schools are doing a job that charters are not: they are educating the kids who don’t stay in the charters, or who arrive too late to feel like enrolling in them is a good choice.
Weber discusses the importance of considering both the coming and going of a school’s students. If a school does not “backfill,” or replace students who leave with other students who arrive later, then the cohorts become smaller with passing years– with remaining students representing “a less mobile population, as Weber notes:
…This (backfilling) is a key issue in determining if charters can be scaled up to take a larger share of students. If charters are not backfilling, they are probably serving a less mobile student population — and one that is likely in less economic disadvantage. They are relying on the public district schools to take the students that are coming into the district, which raises some profound questions about how, exactly, the “successful” charters get their gains.
He also offers the following caveat about assuming that lifting Massachusetts’ charter cap automatically translates into success:
…There are two flavors of charter school in Boston: independent charters, and “Horace Mann” charters, which are sanctioned by the Boston Public Schools and staffed (mostly) with unionized teachers. …
There is no question that the independent charter sector is still relatively small in Boston, at least as far as high schools are concerned. That alone ought to give supporters of Question 2 pause: how can they be so sure these schools can maintain their alleged “gains” (we’ll talk about whether these “gains” actually exist in another post) if they expand? What if they can only function on a smaller scale?
This is a serious issue, and the voters of Massachusetts should be made aware of it before they cast their votes. We know that charter schools have had detrimental effects on the finances of their host school systems in other states. Massachusetts’ charter law has one of the more generous reimbursement policies for host schools, but these laws do little more than delay the inevitable: charter expansion, by definition, is inefficient because administrative functions are replicated. And that means less money in the classroom.
Is it really worth expanding charters and risking further injury to BPS when the charter sector appears, at least at the high school level, to rely so heavily on cohort attrition?
To date, Massachusetts’ charter expansion ballot measure, Question 2, has taken in almost $20 million in cash, with supporters outspending opposition almost 2 to 1.
The greatest financial supporter of MA Q2, Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy, is based in another state (New York), and has spent to date almost $7 million to raise the Massachusetts charter cap. (For Q2 ballot committee filings, click here.)
So many millions spent to lift another state’s charter cap, and not one dollar devoted to an impact study on the ramifications of doing so. But impact is not the question for those with the cap-lifting millions; lifting the cap for cap-lifting’s sake is.
Massachusetts voters need to think about that, and about Weber’s research.